Workers at a cucumber farm in Dhaid. The number of farms in the UAE have increased over recent years Image Credit: GN Archives

The UAE’s efforts to ensure security,stability, availability and sustainability of food products across the whole food value chain is snowballing into a giant collaborative effort between private and public sectors. Progress is not only steady but permeating areas as widespread as crop diversity, aqua culture, urban farming and initiatives that are directly addressing market needs.

Sustainability

When Dr Thani Ahmad Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, attended Food Forever Actions for a Resilient Food System — an event hosted by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, earlier this month — he spoke largely about diversification.

Although 90 per cent of the UAE’s food demands today are met with imports, the country is inspired by its rich lineage and heritage while looking at the future of food, explained Dr Al Zeyoudi.

“Since the Bronze Age, our ancestors have used scarce water resources wisely. Now, our objective is to ensure stability, availability and sustainability across the whole food value chain through diversification,” he said, emphasising government plans to develop its first food diversification strategy with support from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Mariam Al Muhairi, Minister of State for Food Security, is advocating aquaculture and urban farming as active causes. Speaking at a February event in Abu Dhabi, Al Muhairi said private companies have already proven the viability of these technologies. “We can now start looking into the commercialisation of these technologies and will announce targets in these sectors soon.”

In January, Muhairi also spearheaded the UAE launch of the world’s first bottled still water containing vitamin D. The Agthia Group’s initiative is designed to counter the UAE’s unique situation where 78 per cent of residents suffer from vitamin D deficiency.

It’s not just governmental efforts spurring action in finding answers and seeking solutions to assorted concerns in the food and beverage (F&B) industry. A member of the Federal National Council recently sought clarification on the authenticity of organic products available in the UAE markets, with the view that consumers must be aware and assured of the organic integrity of the food they purchase, from farm to table.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s Food and Beverage Manufacturing Business Group (FBMG) is working to unify the industry and bring about more collaboration and cooperation between member organisations. Operating under the auspices of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry,the group had three successful initiatives in 2017: The UAE Food Industry Report, the UAE Food Platform and the implementation of the FLW Protocol to reduce food wastage.

Innovation

According to FBMG, the UAE’s F&B market will grow from $11.3 billion (Dh41.5 billion) in 2015 to $13.2 billion in 2018. Board Member Ahmad Belyouha, who’s also Chairman of Emirates Macaroni Factory, says growth and change in the sector will be driven by increased customisation and personalisation, experiences during consumption and innovative product offerings.

“Trends or changing formats are an outcome of a combination of industry trying to react to consumer trends and their leveraging of these changes on the supply chain with effective models using technology. There will be increased movement towards online models driven by cost and efficiency, while conventional formats for restaurants and retail will have to differentiate themselves with service and experience.

“New business formats will grow, while conventional formats will evolve. The consumer will remain king and his/her needs will dictate changes in existing formats.”

His view is mirrored by Euromonitor International, which has buoyant figures for the UAE’s hot drinks, packaged food and soft drinks sub-sectors, predicting annual growths of 8, 9 and 5.4 per cent respectively, by 2021-22.

“Local companies are dedicating extra production capacity to the development of functional products that do not necessarily add to the bottom line,” explains Senior Analyst James George. “Multifruit formats in juice, zero-sodium water, lowfat coffee and naturally sweetened energy drinks are innovations that aim to cater to strong consumer demand for healthier types of soft drink.”

His colleague, Analyst Monique Naval, adds, “With the introduction of VAT, packaged food is expected to see a larger spike from 2017 to 2018 and a more stable increase over the forecast period. While there are concerns over the price increases, consumers are expected to slightly decrease consumption of non-health and wellness snack items, but still continue to consume staple ones.”