x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE bid to boost local farming amid food worries

Country imports Dh11bn worth of food every year and there are concerns over shortages and prices.

ABU DHABI // GCC ministers will hold a summit in the capital this month to discuss creating an integrated strategy to ensure that the region has enough to eat.

They will meet at SIAL, the world's largest international food trade exhibition and conference, which runs from November 22-24 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

SIAL Middle East will bring together 300 exhibitors from more than 30 countries, and will take place concurrently with the fourth International Date Palm Festival.

The event includes a GCC ministerial forum to to discuss food safety and security. Rashid Mohamed al Shariqi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), hopes the forum will create a "vision for permanent joint work towards food security and safety".

It will explore common standards for assessing potential problems with the food supply, such as recalls, and emergency responses to sudden shortages or price volatility.

World food prices are now just below the peak of the 2008 food crisis, when prices rose by 30 per cent.

With a regional population expected to reach 480 million by 2030, "the food crisis lurches behind us menacingly", Mr al Shariqi said.

The region imports about 85 per cent of its food. Its market is worth more than Dh114 billion. Imports cost the UAE alone around Dh11 billion a year, and Saudi Arabia, the region's largest food importer, more than Dh62 billion.

Food security has become a hot topic in the Emirates. Last month the Abu Dhabi Executive Council approved a plan to dramatically boost local farming, including meat, vegetables and aquaculture. The ADFCA also plans to create international partnerships.

Mohammed al Reyaysa, the authority's communications director, said the aim was to ensure alternative sources of food in case of an unforeseen supply problem.

The conference may also be an opportunity to find new suppliers. Nine country pavilions will be set up at the exhibition in the hope of strengthening trade ties between the region and elsewhere.

Representatives from Argentina, China, Thailand, Turkey and the United States, among others, will be present.

The keynote address will come from Jacques Diouf, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. He will be joined by Fawzi al Sultan, the chairman of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

"The UN's presence shows support and international recognition of the forum," Mr al Reyaysa said.

Beyond encouraging collaborations, organisers hope SIAL Middle East will help to diversify the national economy.

"We need to assess the expansion possibilities of the food industry and develop export potential across the region," Mr al Shariqi said.

The event will allow food professionals, companies and government officials to meet and learn more about international practices and products.

"There is a unique opportunity for visitors to source and introduce new products," Richard Hease, chairman of Turret Media, one of the organisers, said.

Mr al Reyaysa said the event would also be a chance to take UAE dates to an international audience. More than 30 date producers and buyers will be in attendance.

SIAL, the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire, is an international network of professional food trade events that began in Paris in 1964. This month's event is its first in the Middle East.

mdetrie@thenational.ae