Looks can be deceptive when it comes to food security. A casual walk across food bays in the region’s supermarkets can give a sense of sufficiency, even excess. But beneath the overflowing counters lies a stark reality – lack of complete control over highly import-dependent food sources. The MENA region has some of the world’s highest levels of food insecurity.
The good news is we are aware of the challenge. More importantly, long-term approaches are taking root. For instance, the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy 2051 transcends local and regional food security objectives. It aims to achieve zero hunger worldwide by facilitating global food trade, diversifying food import sources, and identifying alternative supply schemes.
Several such initiatives are keeping things in control across the region, hoping to enhance efficiency further. But there are also countries where a moderate hunger level can spiral into major street protests. The World Bank 2020 report puts MENA’s share of the global acutely food insecure people at 20 per cent, while it has only 6 per cent of the world’s population.
Food security is more than just keeping the supply chains well-oiled. A recent DP World call for action illustrates the argument. The global port operator’s new development projects with multinational agricultural commodity processors are strengthening its food and beverage (F&B) cluster and capabilities within Jebel Ali. The new integrated quayside facilities will enhance the year-round availability and production of essential grains and pulses.
Here’s how such facilities add value. The terminal has positioned Dubai as a critical gateway for global F&B trade. Backed by double-digit growth in exports, Dubai’s external foodstuff trade jumped 11 percent year on year to reach Dh57 billion in 2021 compared to Dh51.4 billion in 2020. At an estimated investment of Dh200 million, the facilities will have a singular ecosystem for bulk silo storage and agri-processing.
DPW is also investing in automated material handling and ferrying systems for advanced grain and pulses. The facilities will commence in two years and will expand further in phases. The facilities are expected to account for more than Dh900 million in annual trade, contributing to Dubai’s strategic plan of boosting foreign trade to Dh2 trillion. So, besides being a socio-economic priority, food security can also be big business.
Harnessing technology is another way to fight an expanding food security battle. One glowing example is Pure Harvest, a sustainable technology-enabled agribusiness headquartered in the UAE, which famously grows year-round, even in the harshest summer months. Pure Harvest raised $180.5 million in their latest growth funding round, announced in June this year.
The financing, the largest-ever convertible financing in the MEASA region, will help the company invest in research and development, expand its GCC footprint, and open new markets in Asia. “Controlled-environment agriculture is becoming increasingly important as a solution to food security issues while also mitigating the environmental impact of food production,” said Bjørn Tessiore, Partner at Metric Capital Partners, a private equity investor providing capital solutions to mid-sized companies.
Olayan Financing, a Saudi company holding that manages the group’s Middle East assets, was another key investor in this round of Pure Harvest fundraising. It believes the climate and water challenges Pure Harvest works to overcome are vital to the global economy. “I believe this funding will allow them to unleash significant potential and to meet growing food demands in many new markets,” said an Olayan spokesperson.
Governments across the region, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, have routinely intervened to safeguard food security. They have employed a mix of quick fixes and more sustainable solutions. Observers maintain that GCC countries probably need to work collectively to enhance local farm productivity and reinforce supply chains, considering they import about 85 per cent of their food.
According to one estimate, rice imports to the region comprise virtually all consumption, cereals around 93 per cent, and meat and vegetables 62 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively. Governments constantly firefight to minimize local supply chains and food import disruptions.
On the brighter side, the region’s arid lands are showing glimpses of fertility with vertical farming, desert agriculture, seawater farming, and other climate-smart and organic methods. Yet, it is perhaps time to build and strengthen public entities that can handle food security, scaling up to match the needs of a growing population. It may be easier said than done for countries with larger populations, but ultimately well begun is half done.
The UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Mariam Al Mheiri, sums up the magnitude of the challenge, emphasizing that food systems are broken today and need fixing. “We need to forge partnerships, we need to exchange knowledge, we need to grow and develop our agri-technologists to solve these issues and transform our food systems into more sustainable ones,” she puts things in perspective.
Ehtesham Shahid is an editor and researcher based in the UAE.
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