x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hot pepper aside, a bountiful harvest of imported security

Beef from Ireland, tinned red kidney beans from the UK, tinned tomatoes from Italy, onions from Pakistan – it's choice like this that proves the UAE's food supply is already secure.

One day recently, having just read an article in The National about food "security", I sat down to a home-cooked dinner: chile con carne made with beef from Ireland, tinned red kidney beans from the UK, tinned tomatoes from Italy, onions from Pakistan, oregano from Turkey, cumin and other seasonings from I-don't-know-where but packaged in India and a dash of US chipotle sauce, my secret ingredient. Unfortunately I hadn't been able to find Mexican chilli powder.

My wife made the salad: avocado from New Zealand, tomatoes from Ethiopia, fresh hydroponic lettuce from the UAE, Australian olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar. The toast was made with local bread - wheat imported, no doubt. Our beverages were from Ireland and Australia.

Even without dessert, all this left us feeling secure indeed, "serenely full" in the words of the British writer Sydney Smith. We shared his sentiment:"Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today."

The point is that the UAE's food supply is already secure, exactly because it is sourced from so many places. When you hear of any country being urged to increase its food security, think twice about what constitutes real security.

Economists tell us that different countries have "comparative advantage" in different products: Italy has the climate for tomatoes, Ireland's rain means good grazing for beef cattle, and so on. The UAE produces much of its own chicken, dairy products and dates, but few field crops.

Even with shipping figured in, however, we enjoy cheaper food than some other countries, The National reported recently. True, part of that difference comes from subsidies and price controls. But part of it comes from the efficiency of markets.

And even with shipping included, imports often have a lower carbon footprint than energy-intensive food raised here, not to mention the water inefficiency of local poultry and cattle-raising.

The World Trade Organisation says global food trade has doubled in volume since 1990. Freer trade in general has lifted the global economy, because comparative advantage makes production efficient: China has cheap labour, Australia has ore, the Gulf has oil and so on.

The "food security" mantra evokes a sudden interruption of supply, or at least a price shock: no more chilled beef, no more bargain avocados. True, in today's unstable world, a tsunami or a war can close a supply line overnight. But what could close all the supply lines?

In Hollywood movies, alien invasions menace the whole globe before we've finished our popcorn (usually from the US). But in real life, diversity of supply is the best security there is.

Diversity cushions price shocks, too: supply and demand does affect markets, but if importers can substitute wheat from Argentina, say, when Canada has a bad harvest, or vice versa, price changes are moderated.

This is not to say that national food security is an empty concept. Just as the prudent householder keeps spare bottles of water and tins of basic foods, so a country should maintain stockpiles of non-perishable foodstuffs as insurance against, say, a port disaster.

There is also food security work for governments in the sense of health protection. Imports of contaminated food, often from China, have bedevilled many countries in recent years. Insect pests, bacterial infections and the like are always a menace. Governments must protect the public through inspections of importers, retailers, and each supply-chain link in between.

But self-sufficiency in food, or "progress" towards it, is a pointless goal. This country imports 85 per cent of its food, but that's fine. Many countries import much of their oil. If the rules of trade are fair, comparative advantage works for all, whereas self-sufficiency often means higher prices.

The market, global and quick and served by the ruthlessly effective price signals of supply and demand, brings us, in glorious diversity at reasonable prices, all the food we need.

Well, almost all the food we need. If anybody knows of a retail shop selling dried Mexican peppers or Mexican chilli powder, please let me know.