ABU DHABI // GCC ministers pledged to develop national and regional food security policies at a major summit in the capital yesterday, amid warnings of a future shortage of water and higher crop prices.
The ministers agreed on the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Food Security for Gulf Co-operation Council Countries, which emphasised the importance of agriculture and food security strategies, at the first Middle East edition of Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (SIAL).
They pledged to a set of recommendations meant to improve co-operation and develop policies that could cope with a sudden interruption of food supplies.
The ministers announced their intent to create an integrated monitoring system for food inspections, as well as an early warning system for price changes.
The Gulf nations plan to improve co-operation with international bodies such as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on food security matters.
The agreement also called for national and regional seed banks, and common agricultural policies.
The shifting approach to agriculture was in "the mutual interests" of the region, said Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water.
Abu Dhabi had recently announced plans to reduce water usage in agriculture by up to 40 per cent by 2013, as well as modernise local farms to increase production. Yesterday's declaration comes at a time when food prices are soaring faster than the peak rate of the 2008 food price crisis.
One difference from 2008, however, is that there are 100 million tonnes more food in world reserves, Jacques Diouf, the director general of the FAO, said.
"We're concerned because despite efforts to calm markets, prices have gone up," Mr Diouf said.
The Gulf, which imports up to 90 per cent of its food, is particularly vulnerable to instability.
"At [Middle East North Africa] level, we're going to be facing increasing risks," Fawzi al Sultan, the chairman of the International Food Policy Institute (IFPI), said.
The declaration was a strong first step, said Mr al Sultan, adding "now what is needed is more research and information before the governments can move forward".
According to the IFPI, the world's water resources will have depleted 50 per cent by 2050. In water-scarce regions such as the Gulf, the agriculture sector must change its approach, Mr al Sultan said.
Most of the farms in the region are small holdings that need access to more climate-suitable seeds, and private-sector investment, he said.
The IFPI, an organisation backed by the World Bank, estimates that crop production in the region, which accounts for 90 per cent of water usage, will decrease 11 per cent by 2050.
GCC countries will focus on increasing research and technology to improve the agriculture sector's water efficiency. They will also encourage partnerships between the public sector and private investment for farming and food manufacturing.
"These are the steps that need to be taken, in terms of encouraging investors and in investing in new technology and research," Mr al Sultan said.
Saudi Arabia is already paving the way for private investment in farms abroad through a fund it launched last year.
In the past, the country had been criticised for growing water-intensive wheat, but it is now encouraging farmers to move away from thirstier crops.
Wheat is imported and sold at heavily subsidised prices, making it "economically unfeasible for local production", said Fahad Balghunaim, the Saudi Arabian agriculture minister, on the sidelines of the summit.
per cent of the Mena region’s population is undernourished
per cent reductionis predicted for agriculture production in the Gulf by 2050
per cent is the amount by which world water resources will likely decrease by 2050
per cent is the increase in global food demandexpected by 2050