Dubai: As the coronavirus pandemic continues to put the global food supply chain under severe stress, many nations have come together with emergency and contingency mechanisms to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
At the 14th Dubai International Food Safety Conference held virtually last week, global experts discussed the impact of the pandemic on food security and called for collective steps to boost food production based on the lessons from COVID-19.
Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Muheiri, the UAE Minister of Food Security who inaugurated the two-day conference, highlighted the need to change the food chain and increase the production to ensure food sustainability.She observed that the pandemic has added to the challenges to food security. “By 2030, we will have to feed 10 billion people globally. For that, we need to increase the food production by more than 60 per cent of what it is today.”
The minister said that in UAE, we are suffering from a lack of water and we have less than five per cent of land for agriculture. Also, we import around 90 per cent of our food from abroad. On the other hand, the UAE has become one of the most important trade points because of its airports and sea ports. “We are looking forward to creating modern farming and sustainable agriculture,” she said.
Lessons from COVID-19
Professor Robyn Alders from the Development Policy Centre of Australian National University made a presentation titled ‘Achieving food security by 2030, using lessons from COVID-19 to strengthen food systems’.
Over the past five years, she said, the number of people going hungry globally has been significantly increasing, putting at risk the abilities to achieve the “zero hunger by 2030” sustainability goal. “COVID-19 has already increased by more than 130 million the number of people who are unable to receive sufficient nutrition every day. Pre COVID-19, as many as 690 million were hungry, comprising 8.9 per cent of the world population. This is up by ten million in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.”
She observed that millions have suffered from employment insecurity and food insecurity due to the pandemic. Many have faced difficulties in accessing food due to the lockdowns too.
What should be done now?
With local value chains contributing significantly to food security, Prof Alders called for social security measures to enhance the resilience of food producers and distributors. “We need to be able to guarantee sustainable supply of nutritious food and the production systems need to be shock-resilient. Over the next 12 months, authorities really need to monitor local prices. They need to be warned early if there is going to be a problem with shortage of food or if food prices are rising beyond what most local consumers can cope with.”
Prof Alders said authorities need to make sure the risk communication to consumers is refined and clear to prevent the dangers of misinformation. “We also need to engage young people in sustainable farming,” she added.
Local professionals also aired their suggestions to boost food security. “We need to take a scientific and risk-based approach to establish food standards. We need a new technology to enhance shelf life and reduce food loss,” said Maryam Yousef Beshwari, senior food studies and systems officer at Dubai Municipality.
Yara Ahmed Hamad, director, scientific and regulatory affairs, PepsiCo MEA, called for harmonisation of regulations and digitisation of logistical information worldwide as much as possible. “This will definitely facilitate global food trade, improve food security and build resilience for our future.”
Marwan Nabil Fekri, head of the restaurant inspection unit pointed out that building sustainability and resilience in food systems is now the need of the hour. “We need to enhance local food production and diversify our food culture to be able to meet all kinds of emergencies,” he said.
Promoting alternative proteins, seaweeds
Held under the theme “building resilient and sustainable food system”, the conference also discussed the role of sustainable diets that contribute to promoting human and planetary health. In the wake of supply chains in many countries still struggling to get back to normal due to the economic and social impact of the pandemic, different proposals to diversify the food chain were also presented at the conference.
In its recommendations, the presentation by Sayed Essam Sharaf Al Hashmi, head of Food Trade Control Section at Dubai Municipality, called for programmes and projects to produce alternative dietary proteins in Dubai, such as the European Union’s project Protein2Food which aims to replace traditional meat with vegetable proteins.
Flexible legislations that are in line with new technologies in the food industry was also suggested.
Another proposal presented at the conference was to promote seaweed cultivation in countries that are currently not doing it.
Vincent Doumeizel, director of food programme and senior advisor at United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, announced the launch of Global Safe Seaweed Coalition during his presentation titled “The Sea of Hope: Emerging Trends in Food Production.” The platform aims at improved global standards, certifications and regulations for safe operations, that will help upscale an international seaweed market with a collaborative and epitomised supply chain.
In reply to a question from Gulf News, Doumeizel said the coalition would explore collaborations with countries like the UAE that have the potential to promote safe ocean farming of sea weed.