x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Diversification key to UAE food security

The Emirates will only be able to feed itself in the future by building up its own infrastructure to store food and water, and looking at a way to save scarce resources.

DUBAI // The UAE will be able to feed itself in the future only by ensuring a diversification of the sources of its food.

These include food imports from various countries, building up its own infrastructure to store food and water and looking at ways to save its scarce water resources, experts said at the World Food Security Summit on Sunday.

“There are many challenges facing food security,” said Sean Evers, managing partner of the communications company Gulf Intelligence. “The first thing that needs to be addressed, as for any country, is infrastructure for storage.

“The Arabian Gulf, despite all of its wealth and great advancements in infrastructure – roads, airlines and airports – has a relatively limited infrastructure for the storage of food and water.”

With the demand for food expected to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years and food prices on the rise, vital steps need be taken.

“I think that a key area in terms of very tangible steps is to address that and there are plans to address it,” he said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done in the area of physical storage and that’s what I regard as the most urgent matter, especially on water.”

He said it would take a lot of strategic planning.

“It’s all about the first steps with greater storage capacity and the Gulf needs to make significant leaps in that,” Mr Evers said. “That’s the most obvious area that doesn’t require international cooperation or partnership.”

International cooperation has benefited the UAE – and still could. Having already invested in farmland in countries such as Namibia and Serbia, the UAE imports up to 90 per cent of its food from different sources.

Argentina is the next potential candidate. As one of the world’s top-10 countries in terms of agricultural surface area, it has managed to increase its grain production by 55 per cent over the past decade.

“We know more and more countries of the region are increasing their imports of food and Argentina is a country that can provide good quantity and quality in terms of agricultural products,” said Hector Timerman, Argentina’s foreign minister. “So one of our priorities is agriculture and food security.”

With a population of 40 million and food production that can feed 400 million, Argentina can provide almost every product that grows on a farm, from beef to soy beans. It has also increased the production of its fruits, vegetables and fish.

“We developed technology that is among the top in the world and we provide technicians to help countries increase their productivity,” he said. “We don’t think food security is solely about providing products but also sharing technology to increase food production so we can do it with the UAE to transform the desert into an agricultural area.”

In that context, Argentina established a group of priority countries, which includes the UAE, Brazil, Mexico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China.

“Argentina can offer predictability and experience in food production, which makes it a key partner of the UAE,” said Mr Timerman, who is taking part in the summit.

But access to food is not all about money and imports. Experts say the UAE should also look after its own resources.

“Food is not something that can just emanate from simple economics, but from many other factors,” said Zahra Babar, a speaker at the summit and the associate director for research at the Centre for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. “It’s not just about having enough money to buy food. Food is also social and political, there’s a sense of vulnerability when you are not able to control the source of your agricultural production.”

She said Arabian Gulf countries had very limited water resources that needed to be preserved.

“So putting more water towards agricultural purposes can only happen with an increase in desalination and that’s very energy-intensive,” Ms Babar said. “These countries are now looking at ways of getting alternative energy sources and how to improve their water efficiency.”

cmalek@thenational.ae