DUBAI // Rather than investing in farmland abroad, Arabian Gulf countries should pay more attention to the huge amount of food that is wasted every day, according to an agricultural expert.
It calls into question the policy of the UAE and other GCC countries, which have in recent years bought up swathes of land in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to provide a guaranteed source of food.
However the schemes have not always been as productive as hoped, and in any case the food produced still needs to be shipped or flown back to the UAE - adding substantially to its carbon footprint.
"Much can be done to improve the food security and supply situation in the GCC without the need to acquire tracts of agricultural land in other countries," said Nicholas Lodge, an agricultural expert at the Abu Dhabi-based consultancy, Clarity. "It is estimated that between a third and half of the food produced goes to waste."
He was speaking ahead of AGRA Middle East and the Agribusiness Outlook Forum in Dubai this week.
Last November, The National reported that two-thirds of UAE residents believed they could waste food without worrying about the environmental consequences.
The world's farms already produce enough food to feed almost 12 billion people. "That's [almost] twice the current level of the world's population," said Mr Lodge, "while we have the terrible statistic that more than a billion people suffer from acute hunger."
But efforts are being made locally to reduce the damage. The recent move by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority to force groceries to renovate or shut down should help avoid wastage, by ensuring that retailers store their fresh food properly, according to Dr Deborah Schlichting, an economist at Solvus Economics in the capital.
"This will definitely have a positive impact," she said.
Another critical issue facing the region is water supply. "The UAE and Saudi Arabia use around five to six times the amount of water per capita compared to the UK, which has adequate water," said Mr Lodge.
"Eighty per cent of the water used in the region is for agriculture, which represents only two to five per cent of the GDP on average for GCC countries and only produces 5 to 15 per cent of the food requirements of the region."
The company is working on projects that use the latest hydroponics and high-tech greenhouses to cut water use by up to 90 per cent. These projects can also produce food throughout the year.
"Food security is linked to the availability of water, which is only going to go from bad to worse," he said. "Water availability is expected to reduce by 50 per cent by 2050 and hit widespread acute levels in 2025. Yemen already practically has no water left."
And with 70 per cent of global freshwater used to grow food and the GCC population expected to exceed 50 million by 2020 from its current 40.6 million, the future looks bleak.
"The biggest obstacle is going to be maintaining the constant balance of different imports and sources," said Dr Schlichting.
"It's about balancing the various import sources in a way that you're not overly vulnerable to risks and volatility in the market"
More focus should be put on sustainable agricultural techniques locally, such as hydroponics. "It's not a good food security solution to grow tomatoes in an open field because it generates low yield of poor quality and it's very expensive," she said.
"But the Abu Dhabi Government has really shown some very forward thinking in investing in frontiers of the renewable energy sector."