Food Security in the UAE
With increasing concerns over climate change, urbanization and overpopulation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), there is a major issue that is on the table of all Gulf countries — food security. For a region that imports upwards of 90 percent of its current food supply, self-sustainability remains a significant challenge. According to Aquastat, GCC countries currently use up to 500 percent of total freshwater resources and as demand is expected to exceed by 40% in the next 30 years, the region’s precipitation is also forecasted to decrease.
Additionally, because one third of the region’s food supply passes through only one maritime chokepoint, asserting control over such chokepoints can become political and quickly result in a food security emergency — the most recent example being the first few days of the 2017 Qatar blockade (note that the import dependency ratio in the Gulf reaches up to 70 percent). Finally, compounding the issue is the region’s food wastage. In a report released in 2019 by Dubai Industrial Park and The Economist Intelligence Unit, yearly food waste in Saudi Arabia is around 427 kilograms per person and 197 kilograms per person in the UAE. In contrast, food waste in Europe and North America lies between 96 to 115 kilograms per person.
As the region continues to grow rapidly, the UAE has adopted several comprehensive tactics to tackle food security, a few of which this article will seek to highlight. Among these approaches include its comprehensive food security strategy, high tech agriculture, as well as the creation of international platforms to foster dialogue and innovation surrounding food security solutions.
Late last year, the UAE’s Minister of State of Food Security, Mariam Hareb Almheiri, announced the National Strategy for Food Security. According to Almheiri, the plan comes at a pressing time, given that “the UAE’s climate makes it exceptionally critical for us to develop holistic and ambitious plans to ensure our food security.” The plan is based on three main elements: knowledge of domestic consumption volume, production capacity, and processing and nutritional needs. Furthermore, its long-term initiatives focus on facilitating global food trade, diversifying food import sources, and identifying alternative supply schemes. The National Strategy for Food Security seeks to break the country into the top ten of the Global Food Security Index by 2021, a vision compliant with the country’s Vision 2021 (currently, the UAE ranks 31st). Part of the country’s approach to fulfill these goals is to increase domestic food production, one method being vertical farming. Last year, Dubai allocated 7,600 square meters of land for the region’s first-ever 12 vertical farms, a method employed by Singapore (which ranks 1st on the Global Food Security Index).
Additionally, the country has launched several key programs that can be modeled by surrounding countries, given the similar climate and urbanization transformations they are undergoing. These initiatives include the Food Valley Platform, a database (accessible to interested parties) containing information on research and food security development including resource funding, patent registration mechanisms, and a compilation on global findings. Also, as a way to mobilize the public in addressing food security, the UAE launched the National Governance Structure for Food Security, a policymaking body that includes representatives and stakeholders from all parts of society to discuss and address food security policies. As many argue that climate change, drought, and food security issues were chief causes of the Arab Spring, this platform is an opportune way to ensure public participation in expressing and addressing such concerns.
Another method adopted by the country is high tech agriculture. As mentioned earlier, the UAE models its vertical farming after Singapore; however, this is not the only method. The country has also adopted soilless farming and hydroponics, an alternative to water-intensive methods that has increased from 50 projects in 2009 to 1000 in 2017. Other pillars of the national food security agenda includes aquaculture. A coastal country, the UAE has invested over $27 million to develop controlled farming conditions for fish, mollusks, aquatic plants, and algae, amongst other freshwater and saltwater organisms. Moreover, the country has adopted sensors into both small and large-scale agricultural projects. According to Almheiri, gyroscopes, accelerators, and GPS monitors are used to identify salinity and mineral levels in soil, as well as light and humidity levels. Now the country is able to farm grow Salmon.
Lastly, in attempts to position itself as a worldwide hub of innovation, the UAE has in recent years hosted a slew of international platforms to promote sustainable agriculture and food security discussions. In 2014, Abu Dhabi launched the annual Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA). With attendees from over 120 countries in 2018, the exhibition hosted start-ups, government officials, supply chains, and food producers from various sectors of agriculture including indoor farming, animal, crop, and aquaculture production. Furthermore, Dubai has been the annual host of Gulfood, the world’s largest food and beverage trade exhibition. This year, the festival, which attracted guests from over 120 countries, focused on changing consumer trends towards healthier options, as well as addressing food wastage and international partnerships on agro-product trade. Lastly, with the Dubai Expo 2020 around the corner, sustainability serves as a major subtheme at the international exhibition.
Ultimately, as the region faces increasing aridity due to climate change, as well as the pressing need for economic diversification, the UAE has proven itself as an ambitious pioneer in food security and sustainability. Due to its reputation as an international transit and innovation hub, as well as its massive wealth to acquire and invest in high technologies, it is able to easily develop comprehensive methods to tackle food security. With that said, it should now seek to distribute its methods and technologies to its neighbors, especially to countries with comparatively lower GDPs such as Oman and Kuwait (which face similar climate conditions and food security challenges).