* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.24 February 2014, Rome - Conflict, rapid population growth and urbanization, and a heavy reliance on food imports are posing serious challenges for food security in the Near East and North Africa, although progress has been made in some countries, FAO said today. Three countries in the region (Algeria, Jordan and Kuwait,) have met the hunger component of the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG1) by halving the proportion of their population experiencing chronic hunger. But region-wide, the number of undernourished people remains high at nearly 43.7 million, or 10 percent of the population, while 24.5 percent of children under five are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition, according to an assessment presented today at the start of the Organization's regional conference. Micronutrient deficiencies are common in both affluent and less affluent countries, having a number of serious consequences for school enrollment, productivity and public health. Conflicts and civil strife remain the driving factor for food insecurity in the region in recent years, FAO says. Hotspots include Iraq, Sudan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Yemen. In Syria alone, an estimated 6.3 million people are in need of sustained food and agricultural assistance. At the other end of the malnutrition spectrum, nearly one quarter of people in the Near East and North Africa are now obese - this is double the world average and nearly three times the obesity rate of developing countries as a whole. Complex set of factors at play On top of long-standing structural challenges, climate change and emerging animal diseases are also undermining food security in the Near East and North Africa, notes FAO. And the region's heavy reliance on imports of food to meet its consumption needs makes it extremely vulnerable to increases in and volatility of international agricultural commodity prices. This dependence on external food sources is projected to intensify over the decades to come, the UN agency's assessment says. Food waste aggravates low production Given the region's need to import large quantities of food, its slow growth in domestic food production and high levels of food waste are cause for concern, according to FAO. Running 1.8 metric tonnes per hectare per year, cereal yields in the region are just 56 percent of the world average, while at the same time an estimated twenty percent of food in the region is lost or wasted. There is scope for increasing productivity in most countries in the region - and particularly in low-income countries such as Sudan, Yemen, and Mauritania - as well as a widespread need to reduce food losses. Charting a regional strategy for food security FAO's assessment also offers suggestions regarding actions that countries in the Near East and North Africa can undertake individually and collectively to address regional food security concerns. At the national level, governments should channel more resources toward increasing food productivity, especially by smallholders. Low agriculture productivity in the region is linked to limited investment in research and development and to slow adoption by farmers of existing, effective technologies. Extension services need to be reformed and strengthened, including support for farmer field schools and cooperatives. Other areas where investment will be needed include rural infrastructure, such as transport facilities and markets, educational initiatives aimed at helping growers reach markets, and programs that facilitate farmers' access to credit and financial services, At the regional level, cooperation on reducing barriers to trade in food items needs to be enhanced, and governments should also consider pooling their resources to establish regional food reserves.