BEIRUT // A long-term ban on imports of European vegetables could leave many more countries turning to the Middle East for food, experts say.
The source of the European E.coli outbreak - which has so far killed at least 22 people and put hundreds in intensive care - yesterday remained uncertain. Tests first ruled out Spanish cucumbers, then a bean sprout farm in Hamburg.
None of the virulent new strain of E.coli has been detected in Abu Dhabi, and the Ministry of Environment and Water is closely monitoring all imported food, and any vegetable suspected of contamination has been banned.
"The vegetables and fruits from the farms in the country are much safer than imported ones," said Mohamed Jalal al Reyaysa, of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority. "We leave no scope for any food risks as far as local produce are concerned."
But for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) to take full advantage of a gap in the market, there is a fundamental hurdle to overcome - the region's chronic water shortage. "Agriculture needs to be more efficient and more resilient," said Dr Nicola Lamaddalena, the head of the land and water department at the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies.
The GCC in particular has less renewable fresh water than almost anywhere else, at just 177,000 litres per person a year. France has more than 3 million litres a person a year.
UAE citizens are among the highest per capita water users in the world, consuming an average of 700 litres a day, and that figure is rising.
That, says Dr Hammou Laamrani, an expert in Mena water management at the International Development Research Centre, means "the gap is clearly in water governance".
"We're not making the best use of water and we're not protecting our resources," Dr Laamrani said at a regional conference on food security in Beirut last week.
He cited Egypt's distribution network, which leaks about 6 billion litres of drinking water a day.
As for the UAE, Dr Mahmoud El Solh, the director general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda) said: "It has an abundance of saline water and, therefore, it is very important that any work on food security in the UAE take into consideration the water quality and availability.
"With rainfall close to nil, the UAE is now working more on protected agriculture - greenhouses and hydroponics - because they produce more crop per drop of water."
The GCC is the world's greatest food importer per capita.
The UAE imports more than 80 per cent of its food, spending Dh25.5 billion on imports last year. Food consumption is expected to increase by almost 5 per cent by 2014, meaning the Emirates will need to import or grow more.
"We must improve the management of farming systems and there is a need to prioritise investments in dryland farming because it's an area of importance for global food security," said Dr Kamel Shideed, the assistant director general at Icarda.
"We must also establish an international food security and climate change network to counter the effects of climate change in dry areas."
The forecast was optimistic Dr El Solh said: "Gulf countries are thinking about using desalinated water for agriculture for sustainability and economic feasibility. They are now much more conscious on the use of their water, and they are definitely moving in the right direction."