The UAE is pursuing an ambitious plan to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. The National Food Security Strategy 2051, adopted in November 2018, aims to grow over 100,000 tonnes of food by 2021. Growing food is challenging in this desert country where water sources and arable land are finite and open-air farming is tough due to high summer temperatures.
These challenges are enormous, but the task is not impossible as farm technologies have evolved, reducing dependence on natural resources to grow food. The UAE has shown it can grow crops that are traditionally dependent on rainwater in Asia’s tropical nations. For example, a UAE farm irrigated with desalinated water through a network of underground drip system yielded 763kg of rice per 1,000 square metres of land. While rice farming will be tested on a bigger scale, the same techniques will now be deployed to grow other crops, including wheat and coffee.
Crops produced locally are fresher because of the less number of processes and packaging steps involved in farm-to-plate supply chains.
The UAE has identified a basket of 18 food items which will be grown locally and made available to consumers through dedicated supply chains. Farm production is just one part of the food security strategy, and it also involves reducing food wastage and sustainable farming. The country, which has traditionally relied on food imports, has now realised that a pandemic like COVID-19 can potentially disrupt global supply chains for long durations. During the last six months, when nations were under lockdowns and airports were shut, the UAE government ensured that food supply was not disrupted and prices remained unchanged. The UAE is aware that a crisis of this magnitude can create massive disturbances, and that is why self-sufficiency in food is important.
The biggest hurdle, however, in self-sufficiency is producing to scale so that local produce can compete with imported foods. Consumers will buy only if the food is fresh, widely available and reasonably priced, three key factors that make farming sustainable, and profitable for Emirati farmers. The government can enable partnerships between Emirati farmers and supermarket chains to boost investment in new technologies. It must also continue to ensure local produce is free from harmful pesticides and fertilisers.
Awareness about the benefits of locally produced food is necessary to encourage consumers. They should be informed that crops produced locally are fresher because of the less number of processes and packaging steps involved in farm-to-plate supply chains. In the long run, these measures can help achieve the food strategy objectives and reduce dependence on imports which is around 90 per cent.