x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

To feed tomorrow's GCC, leaders must make plans today

No single technique is perceived to be the silver bullet to the food security issue, but there is an area that is commonly considered a no-go: wastage.

The GCC imports about 90 per cent of its food requirements. Sarah Dea / The National
The GCC imports about 90 per cent of its food requirements. Sarah Dea / The National

The six states of the GCC are bound together by a common set of circumstances when it comes to food security. Home to a population that is growing at three times the world average, the region is made up of arid terrain where temperature, soil and water availability are not conducive to conventional agriculture.

Moreover, the region's food supply lies at the mercy of factors that range from geopolitical unrest to the cascading effects of climate change.

These looming challenges are further compounded as administrations are obliged to adapt to changing dietary trends that alter the profile of food imports. As GCC inhabitants have become more prosperous, they have acquired a taste for more expensive foods - away from staples to foods that are processed, high in protein, or costly to produce, like fruit.

The GCC currently imports about 90 per cent of its food requirements. The vulnerability of this strategy was brought home forcefully in 2008, when fears of food shortages around the world led to a spike in food prices, prompting several food-producing countries to institute export bans. The GCC consumer was affected not only by the higher prices at the market but also by the non-availability of products subject to the export bans.

In the not-so-remote scenario where climate change disrupts global harvests - recent research in the journal Science warns that as this happens, around half of the world's population could face severe food shortages by the end of this century - it is a given that such self-protective trends by exporting nations will only become more frequent.

It is this niggling sense of susceptibility that has moved food security high up on the "to-do" list of GCC policymakers. Several task forces have been set up and quite a few recommendations implemented. These range from growing food on land leased from foreign countries to researching the frontiers of science in the hope that it will enable us to grow a wider spectrum of crops in a desert or controlled environment.

Strategists are aware that each idea represents a mixed bag of opportunities and limitations, keeping in mind that certain previous approaches failed the test of sustainability. For example, Saudi Arabia was able to become the sixth-largest exporter of wheat in the early 1990s, but the programme proved to be unsustainable and had to be phased out because the effect on the kingdom's non-renewable fresh water aquifers was immense.

The GCC needs agricultural methods that circumvent crop-wilting in summer temperatures, and for irrigation purposes, a significantly sustainable source of water derived from renewable sources. Already, states such as Qatar are testing projects that implement soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics (in water) and aeroponics (in air).

No single technique is perceived to be the silver bullet to the food security issue, but there is an area that is commonly considered a no-go. This concerns the enormous amount of food that is wasted, from the time it is harvested to the time it is shipped to the time we throw it away into the rubbish bin.

An alarming piece of data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that must be understood is this: Every year, the world wastes 1.3 billion tonnes of food, about one-third of the global food production. This would be more than adequate to meet the needs of the 1 billion people on the planet who face chronic starvation.

We have, tragically, become a generation of food wasters. It is the sad truth that we must digest now for the sake of our children and our grandchildren (and remedy it before it is too late) so that they may not hunger and thirst, nor have to endure a society wrecked by conflicts over food.

The food security challenge calls on us to ask the right questions pertaining to resourceful farming practices, efficient transportation, sustainable storage, better retail inventory systems, and last but not the least, our own level of respect for the food we are privileged to access.

Global movements including the "Think, Eat, Save: Reduce Your Footprint", launched by the UN Environment Programme, are commendable, and we hope will compel all stakeholders - including individual consumers - to reconsider their food foot-print.

In the final tally, the GCC's food security challenge is a subset of a bigger, wider one. The answer, then, will have to be wrought globally, holistically. And while that answer may be aided by the wonders of science, better industrial policies and superior governance, there is just no substitute for the power of one.

We all must make balanced choices and consume more responsibly, so that the future generations may not be reduced to eating our leftovers.


Zahra Babar is assistant director of research at the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Moamer Qazafi is director of communications at the School of Foreign Service