x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

GCC 'will never be able to feed itself' because of water shortage

There will never be food security in the GCC, despite efforts to encourage local farmers to produce more food, according to an agricultural expert.

ABU DHABI // Despite efforts to encourage local farmers to produce more of the region's food, the GCC's severe lack of water means it will never truly be able to feed itself, an expert said yesterday.

"This is a desert," said Jeffrey Culpepper, the chairman of AgriSecura, a company that invests in ethical food security solutions.

"If there is a catastrophic event that were to stop our desalination plants, we will only have three days of water supply and [it's something] we can't live without."

The UAE remains heavily dependent on imports, shipping in 80 per cent of its food. And although some experts say the country is moving in the right direction in terms of self-sufficiency, others are less optimistic.

"The two biggest products consumed in the GCC are wheat flour and rice and they both can't be grown in greenhouses or through hydroponics," said Mr Culpepper. "They have to be bought in supermarkets."

Such high dependency on other countries is alarming, he says.

"There are only five food exporting countries in the world, and four are in the same zone." Those countries, he said, are the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia.

"Because everything we consume here is imported, we're always going to be dependent on [them]."

And the UAE's reliance on countries prone to climatic, political shifts and droughts puts it in an extremely vulnerable position.

"This exposes you to certain economic vulnerabilities," said Dr Deborah Schlichting, a senior agricultural economist at Solvus Economics in Abu Dhabi.

Last January, economists predicted a sharp rise in the price of staple foods this year because of global climatic conditions. If drought strikes Argentina, or Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, the UAE will suffer.

"Domestic production can be done and it is being done with aquaculture for instance, but the rest will have to come from purchases from the international market," said Dr Schlichting.

The answer, according to Mr Culpepper, is for GCC countries to get their food from as multiple sources and routes, "so that no matter where there is a disruption to the supply chain, it won't be affected."