Food insecurity is a global menace, the intensity of which may differ from nation to nation. It is a complex phenomenon, attributable to a range of factors that vary across regions, countries and social groups.
However, food security has been already emerging as a key challenge to the people of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region even before the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the problem by disrupting supply chains all over the globe.
But since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, food security has emerged as a prominent policy issue globally, and the Gulf Arab states, including the UAE, are no exception. The historical reliance on imports and the dearth of self-sufficiency has raised the food security red flag for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, an anxiety manifest in numerous think-tanks and policy reports.
Like any other GCC state, food security in the UAE is, and has historically been, threatened by a number of limiting topographic factors. Because of its arid climate and paucity of arable land, the UAE relies heavily on imports for its basic commodities and other food items. The local agriculture contribution to the national GDP is hardly 0.9 per cent because little portion of the total land is available for agriculture, while total agricultural area has decreased by 3 per cent annually over the last 14 years due to desertification and soil degradation.
With such a small amount of available arable land and a climate that has little rainfall, the UAE faces significant natural challenges standing in the way of its goal to be self-reliant and a champion of food security in the Middle East.
This topography means that the UAE imports 90 per cent of its food, which is compounded by the growing demand for diverse food types, driven by high socio-economic status, booming demographics and shifting consumption habits. In the
same vein, the UAE is among the top ranked Gulf states where per capita food waste is 38 per cent, which costs around Dh6 billion per year approximately.
This is a fact that the UAE spends billions of dollars on the import of staple food items like wheat, rice, edible oil, pulses, sugar, cereals, etc. from various countries across the globe including Pakistan, Iran, Australia, Ukraine, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Russia, China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, US and others. Like most countries in the MENA region, the UAE is heavily dependent on food imports — in 2019 the UAE food trade value (imports, exports, and re-exports), amounted to $24.7 billion. But these imports and exports are vulnerable to any serious disruption like Covid-19.
Despite the fact that the UAE is considered food secure due to its ability to import food from international markets, it is now prioritising innovation-driven food security projects and investments in light of the Covid-19 pandemic scenario. The country is making timely and strenuous efforts, coupled with massive investments to avail opportunities that may arise and to cope with the challenges on the way to meeting food sustainability and security goals.
Since the launch of the National Food Security Strategy in 2017, the UAE rose from the 33rd place to the 21st in only two years. The strategy employed focuses on facilitating global food trade, diversifying sources of food imports through partnerships and enhancing sustainable local food production.
As one of the region’s top financial and political heavyweights, the UAE is taking active steps to encourage local food production capabilities, including deploying regenerative and advance farming tech, empowering local farmers, boosting local production through alternative growing techniques and digitising the supply chain. The UAE has been investing heavily in Agritech, and is shining a light on the flourishing opportunities for agricultural companies and organisations to expand their businesses and activities not only in the UAE, but also across the Middle East.
The UAE depends heavily on its strengths, namely its economic and political stability, stable currency and high GDP despite being the world’s third largest re-exporter. Strong diplomatic and trade relations have underpinned its food security strategies, and access to capital and low tariffs and barriers to trade have facilitated this process effectively.
ROLE OF PAKISTAN
The UAE is Pakistan’s largest trading partner in the MENA region and a major source of investments and remittances. The trade volume between the two countries amounted to $8.19 billion (Dh30 billion) in 2019.The UAE is also among the largest foreign investors in Pakistan.
Both countries enjoy decades-old excellent fraternal relations, underpinned by a shared heritage and multi-faceted cooperation. Economic and trade ties between Pakistan and the UAE are an important part of this bilateral relation¬ship and has been growing steadily.
Recently, the UAE has announced in¬vestment of one billion dollars in Pakistan’s economic and investment sectors. The move aims at exploring new investment opportunities, expanding bilateral economic relations and enhancing mutual cooperation in projects covering various sectors of the economy. The investment is likely to be channelled to key sectors including gas, energy infrastructure, renewable energy, healthcare, biotechnology, agriculture technology, logistics, digital communications, e-commerce and financial services.
This is one of the aspects of the lasting ties between the two brotherly states. As far as the UAE’s food security is concerned, Pakistan is ideally placed to fulfil its staple food needs. With tested supply chains and regulatory mechanisms in place, the road, sea and air routes are the easiest and quickest source to ensure consistent supply of food items and others at minimum freight charges to the UAE from Pakistan.
With the operationalisation of the Gwadar Port, under China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan would be ready to connect the Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asia for swift and cost-effective transportation of freight goods in the region.
The late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan had once said: “Give me agriculture and I will give you civilisation.” Despite the scarcity of arable land, fresh water resources and harsh environmental conditions, the Founding Father of the UAE believed in the power of agriculture in stimulating economic prosperity and transforming the vast desert wilderness into a lush green haven.
Government-to-government collaboration, supported by frequent interactions between private sector representatives of the two countries is encouraging. Pakistan offers an ideal opportunity to the UAE to leverage decades old brotherly relations and make investments in agro-economy, livestock, poultry, milk and fruit processing, research and development, establishment of grain storage and land banks.
There are countless other opportunities for the UAE government and investors in various sectors of the economy, including engineering, surgical instruments, pharmaceuticals, value-added textiles, leather products, meat and agriculture machinery.
Aside from creating a regional food basket network that could decrease reliance on far away African, Latin American markets and alleviate logistical challenges, such a seamless network and cooperation with Pakistan would help alleviate UAE’s food security concerns and socio-political issues.
The UAE’s population is estimated to swell to 11.5 million by 2025, while its food consumption is growing at the rate of 12 per cent a year. Looking at climate change and global food demand, the UAE needs to ensure different plans in place to secure food for today and the future.
It is ripe time that the leadership from both brotherly nations sit together and forge partnerships for devising and implementing plans and policies aimed at facilitating sustainable food production through grandiose investments in agriculture and technology innovation for a win-win situation for both.
Dr. Behrad Elahi, MD Fellow of European Society of Cardiology and Interventional Cardiologist at Al Zahra Hospital Dubai, talks about how raising awareness on health risks and taking steps to prevent diseases can go a long way in reducing heart-related morbidities