Italian tomato
Excessive attention should not be given to growing tomatoes locally as there are still cheaper import options available. Food security should be built on more substantial targets. Image Credit: AFP

We referred to them as the “Tomato Traders”. In other instances, the labelling associated them with a very specific brand of luxury cars, noticeable on UAE roads post the tomato harvest season.

I still remember when I was first told about this as part of the discussion around the 2008 financial crisis. Mainly, its short- and long-term impacts on the UAE economy, which segments tended to benefit - or were better positioned to benefit - and which were the most negatively impacted.

The 2008 financial crisis was not only notable because of its impact on financial markets and economies, but also because of the food crisis that accompanied it, resulting in some of the biggest spikes in food prices. Among those commodities was tomatoes.

In countries where growing the commodity is subsidised, like in the UAE, growers saw the best of times during the 2008 crisis, enabling them to withstand the financial blow that hit other investors. More so as a surge in the cultivation of the commodity around that period was observed as well. Subsequently, the gap between higher tomato selling prices and low cultivation costs, because of the subsidy, contributed to the enrichment of tomato traders at a financially precarious time.

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Missing the point

Twelve years later, emphasis on tomatoes’ cultivation seems to have retained its footing in the UAE’s food security narrative. I witnessed that first-hand when I attended a session on food security, in which the importance of cherry tomatoes for the UAE’s food security could not be stressed enough. For someone who does not eat tomatoes, cherry tomatoes included, that was alarming. Being someone who has been looking into food security for more than five years pales in comparison.

It must be pointed out here, nevertheless, that the underlying notion of tomatoes being pursued for food security is not entirely wrong, or inaccurate. And that ties up nicely with the commercialisation aspect that was mentioned, even though only in passing, in the cherry tomatoes session.

The problem was more with understanding the link between tomatoes and food security, and how the link is presented. For instance, it would not make sense if one is told that they must give up other essential food commodities and settle for tomatoes instead. And in my specific case, I wouldn’t consume tomatoes even if my life depended on it.

Import substitutes

Back to commercialisation, growing tomatoes, at reasonable costs and without the need for subsidies, could present all kinds of possibilities to capture a larger share of the value chain. This does not relate to tomatoes, alone but also to tomato by-products, which could be supplied to restaurants and grocery chains.

Ideally, for the UAE, the proceeds from capturing the tomatoes’ value chain could be used to import other food commodities, bridging the gap between domestic consumption and agricultural production in the UAE.

Capture a wider user base

The same logic applies to any other high-value food commodity that does not constitute a staple food commodity for the country, as rice does in the UAE, as long as the commodity can be grown at reasonable costs to partially cover domestic consumption. The focus should be on capturing a higher share of the commodity’s processing value chain, positioning the UAE as a food processing - and not only a food exporting, logistical and trade - hub.

That being said, domestic agricultural production must target full or partial self-sufficiency depending on the costs that will be incurred, particularly those of subsidies. Be it tomatoes or any other high-value food commodity, the aim should not be to satisfy domestic consumption only, if feasible, but to trade commodities and their by-products for others.

So, does self-sufficiency in tomatoes mean being food secure?

Self-sufficiency in non-essential food commodities, like tomatoes, does not constitute food security. Yet, being totally dependent on its imports is not being food secure either. This can prove disastrous if not managed properly during times of disruption in global supply chains, evident from the disruption caused by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, producing everything that a country consumes is impossible, even if the country is deemed an agricultural powerhouse. In cases where countries have managed to produce most of what they consume, the costs were either too high or the production was inefficient.

Prioritise right

Therefore, what really matters in formulating a food security strategy is to establish a clear understanding of what a country is good at producing, then to focus the country’s energies on producing those commodities as efficiently as possible. As for what a country cannot produce, at least not without inefficient water use and high subsidy rates, the focus must turn into food imports, even if that would naturally mean vulnerability and exposure to disruption in global supply chains.

The risk from such exposure can be mitigated by diversifying food import sources, by capping a country’s imports of a specific commodity from X country at Y percentage. With tomatoes, there are more than 70 countries around the globe that produce quantities equal, or in excess of, the UAE’s annual imports of tomatoes.

In conclusion, achieving strides in the cultivation of commodities that are not key to food security, such as tomatoes, should not be widely celebrated, especially when higher production levels are attained through high subsidy rates. Knowing what can be produced at what cost could better inform reasonable self-sufficiency policies, which when implemented, along a balanced diversification in food import sources, would form a more sustainable approach to a country’s food security in the long-term.

For tomorrow’s food security, diversification in the sources of food imports may be all that matters. The last thought that I want to leave you with: How to assess food import sources?

- Abdulnasser Alshaali is a UAE based economist.