The UAE's food security hinges on its imports — nearly 85 per cent of its total requirement. If the nation follows the same trade trajectory, food import costs are projected to increase to $400 billion by 2025.
Although UAE's economic and political leverage allows such a trade deficit, it does not align with today's changed reality, characterized by supply-chain disruptions and emphasis on self-reliance. The obvious solution is to enhance localized agricultural production.
But this is easier said than done.
Sub-optimal soil conditions, arid climate, acute water scarcity and erratic rainfall leave the UAE with several impediments to food production. And since water is the most important determinant of agricultural productivity, the lack of it means that the scope can be limited.
As things stand, agriculture already accounts for 65 per cent of water use in the UAE, which is disproportionately high. Increasing the demand on desalination plants, too is not a viable solution, taking into account the high carbon emissions this would involve.
Such a conflicting set of conditions is not unique. Many nations, particularly in the Middle East, are grappling with multi-faceted challenges to food security. This was further aggravated during the pandemic.
According to the World Economic Forum, 690 million people were chronically undernourished, while three billion could not afford a nutritious diet. As a result, agriculture attracted renewed focus, in the recent WEF Davos 2021.
Policymakers and business elites echoed the pressing need to shape agricultural policies and partnerships for a more inclusive and sustainable future. However, unlike previous editions, Davos 2021 strongly advocated for a framework that addresses the interplay between agriculture and issues such as water scarcity, climate change and deforestation.
The great reset underway lends a perfect window to introduce such holistic approaches to addressing food scarcity. If the pandemic showed us anything, it was that we are capable of decisive actions when faced with adversity. And in the context of the UAE, this endeavour - to drive sustainable agriculture - relies heavily on harnessing renewable resources.
The UAE has poured massive investments into desalination and wastewater treatment. Today, the nation is a global leader in those domains. Concurrently, cloud-seeding initiatives were launched to enhance precipitation.
But there is still a need for cost-effective and scalable mechanisms to harvest rainwater and avert flooding. Centralized rainwater harvesting systems, which are expensive to install and have limited catchment area, are not viable.
To extract maximum value, we need decentralized systems that are employable by individual farmers and institutions alike, as per requirements. Thanks to technology, such systems are now possible.
These decentralized systems tick all the sustainability boxes in line with Davos Agenda's push for a holistic approach. They essentially enable self-reliance and sufficiency in the agriculture ecosystem, by harnessing a renewable source of water.
Widespread deployment could, in time, reduce the load on desalination plants and help reduce the water-related carbon footprint of the UAE.
According to the WEF, with rapid urbanization and increasing population, water and food scarcity are set to become even more challenging, if they are not addressed using proactive solutions. Making this change will require multi-stakeholder participation, and strong tech and capital flow to farming communities.
But taking a smart approach to addressing fundamental systemic challenges, like water scarcity, can help alter the equation fundamentally, and drive sustainable food security.
- Chandra Dake is CEO of Dake Rechsand.