Agriculture has always been a challenging endeavour in the arid climate of the Middle East. The region relies primarily on food imports to feed its growing population, rather than local production. In the Gulf countries, where the population is set to double in size by 2050, an estimated 85% of food is imported from abroad.
The Middle East’s reliance on food imports makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets, which have worsened during the recent geopolitical and economic crises. First, the pandemic caused disruption to food imports and now the dire situation in Ukraine is impacting the global supply of wheat.
Meanwhile sanctions on Russian oil are driving up energy prices with a detrimental effect on several parts of the global food supply chain. In this context, the need to enhance the region’s food security and ramp up local food production has never been more urgent.
Local desalination capacity
But traditional agriculture does not have all the answers. The enormous resource and environmental cost of traditional agriculture in an unforgiving desert environment is not sustainable. The region has invested heavily in local desalination capacity over the last few years to meet agriculture’s water needs. But desalination is expensive and energy dependent, which makes it unsustainable in the long-term.
To become more self-reliant, governments in the region have started to invest in Agri-Tech. Much has been written about the Gulf’s recent adoption of vertical and hydroponic farming — a novel way of growing plants without the need for much water. But to really shift the dial on food sufficiency, we need to look beyond fruit and vegetables.
According to Alpen Capital’s most recent GCC Food Industry report, consumption of food in the Gulf is anticipated to grow at 2.3% to reach 52.4 million metric tonnes by 2025, while demand for meat is forecast to grow 4% over that same time period.
Meeting this growing demand will require a big jump in meat and seafood production. Recent innovations in aquaculture and livestock breeding could hold the key to sustainable and productive fish and livestock farming in the Middle East.
Beyond Vertical Farming: Aquaculture and Livestock Genetics
Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE are investing in aquaculture and partnering with international experts, including organisations from the UK, to establish productive local fish farms.
The UK Government’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) is working with partner organisations in the Gulf region to improve sustainable fishing and tackle biodiversity loss through the UK Gulf Marine Environment Partnership (GMEP) Programme. Cefas is running a variety of projects across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Oman, the initiative is helping to tackle the outbreak of disease in the aquaculture sector. Cefas has drafted revised legislation for aquaculture health management, provided technical training to local staff in aquaculture disease diagnosis, initiated a baseline study of aquatic diseases and supported the development of a farm biosecurity surveillance programme.
Cefas is also collaborating with Qatar University to develop national expertise in aquatic animal health diagnostics, to monitor the health of wild and farmed seafood, minimising economic losses and maximising national aquatic food security.
Meanwhile, advances in animal breeding, genetics, and genomics are facilitating more efficient and sustainable cattle farming. Technologies such as genetic selection and genome editing offer exciting opportunities for the production of fitter, healthier and more-productive livestock, enabling farmers to drive better commercial performance from their farms.
Cogent Breeding is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of bovine genetics that exports its expertise to a number of markets in the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq. Cogent offers genetic-based solutions to farmers that help to drive their farm’s profitability. The company offers the largest range of Holstein genetics on the market alongside a range of other genetic products and services for the livestock sector.
The current geopolitical and economic uncertainty and supply chain disruptions will undoubtedly accelerate the efforts of governments to find solutions for local food sufficiency. The UK stands ready to support the region’s efforts to build a strong local food ecosystem that can withstand future shocks to the global food market and supply chain.
Simon Penney, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for the Middle East and Consul General to Dubai