After several years’ lull, food security is back on the agenda. The 2007–2008 food price crisis had acted as a wake-up call for many importing states, including in the Arabian Gulf, regarding their vulnerability to food price and supply risks. However, after some subsequent debate on overseas land investments, food security has not featured in a major way in domestic discussions in the region.
This time around, the discussion is not about short-term risks, however, but longer-term and potentially much more consequential ones, including climate change. Signalling this shift in focus, both food and climate change featured among the key topics discussed at the recent World Government Summit in Dubai. Thinkers and leaders highlighted the negative impacts of climate change on global food security and explored related solutions.
At the newly-launched Climate in Action Forum, Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), called for less wasteful food and water consumption and for support to smallholder farmers and agricultural research.
Climate risk expert Thomas Homer-Dixon stressed the need to invest in technologies for adapting to the impacts of climate change. He also reminded people that any adaptation efforts will be futile without ambitious reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change is a key driver of global food insecurity. Its negative impacts are already seen in agriculture worldwide, as confirmed by the latest authoritative report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from 2014. According to the FAO, climate change is expected to affect crop productivity and variability, and potentially production patterns in many regions.
Climate change, however, is not the only factor exerting pressure on the global food production system. Population growth, rising living standards and the pace of improvements in efficiency of agricultural production will also play into the equation of how much food will be available on global food markets.
In addition, food exports are concentrated among a few countries. According to the FAO, in a decade’s time, five countries, or fewer, will dominate global exports (with a 70 per cent share or more) for 25 key agricultural products each. For example, the top five exporters of soybeans account for close to 95 per cent of global exports.
In a shorter timeframe, the situation looks a little less worrisome: After several years of turbulence, the FAO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development declared in 2016 that an era of high world food prices was over. Lower price levels are expected to persist for the time being, even if the agencies see the probability of another price swing over the next decade to be highly likely.
For countries that depend highly on food imports, such as the UAE, the current benign period in the global food markets is a welcome one. At the same time, long-term risks should not be ignored. Food import dependency is a structural characteristic of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. This dependence therefore needs to be carefully managed.
Estimates of the UAE’s food import dependency range from 85 per cent to more than 90 per cent. However, in the longer term, a recently-concluded study by the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative on the potential negative impacts of climate change on the UAE’s food imports found that, over the next three to four decades, most of the UAE’s imports from most of its trade partners could be constrained.
In public discourse, there has been less attention among the expert community to the foreign policy aspects of food security, which range from global regulatory environments, through regional cooperation to bilateral relations with food exporting countries. A roundtable series led by the Emirates Wildlife Society, which examined climate change impacts and risks to different sectors in the UAE, seemed to indicate — based on this participant’s perspective — that a lot of thinking among the expert community is dedicated to the sustainability of domestic production and less on managing the foreign policy side.
Food wastage has also received little attention. On an average, countries waste a third of the food produced, and the UAE is estimated to lose billions of dirhams through food loss each year.
Rising to the challenge, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment is currently working both on a climate change strategy and a food diversification policy. The strategies will be based on extensive stakeholder consultation and will be able to benefit from the important groundwork undertaken by UAE-based research organisations. Also, earlier this year, Dubai announced it would target zero food waste and launched the UAE Food Bank to support related efforts.
The UAE is a highly food secure country and its economic wealth enables it to implement a number of measures to ensure that this continues into the future. These include tariff and price-related measures, consumer subsidies, support to domestic agriculture and manufacturing capacities, overseas investments and strategic food reserves.
At the same time, even more could be done, as I will argue in a working paper, to be published shortly by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy. With the UAE’s food security depending to a large extent on other countries, food should also be understood as a foreign policy issue.
By applying this lens, a number of additional tools can be applied, which include working for a favourable international regulatory environment, supporting regional cooperation on food security and managing bilateral ties with food trade partners in a holistic manner.
In today’s globalised world, solving transboundary issues such as food security and climate change requires a concerted effort between domestic and foreign-policy stakeholders. The stakes are particularly high for a country like the UAE that still depends on significant oil export revenues and will continue to depend physically to a large extent on food imports. The sights are now set firmly. Success will depend on maintaining the momentum.
Dr Mari Luomi is senior research fellow at Emirates Diplomatic Academy.