The audience at the 17th annual conference on Water and Food Security in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Strengthening of international food markets and regulations will boost food Image Credit: Abdel-Krim Kallouche/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The UAE may import most of its food, but it is a "food secure" country if measured in terms of per capita income and the fact that export revenues outweigh food imports, Eckart Woertz, visiting fellow at Princeton University told Gulf News.

With a rapidly expanding world population, rising food prices, and shrinking agricultural acreage due to increasing scarcity of water resources, water and food security have emerged as one of the most serious challenges facing today's governments, including those of the GCC, said Woertz. He noted that Arab Gulf countries do not have sufficient natural water resources, and mainly rely on sea water desalination to satisfy their requirements.

The GCC countries also imports most of their food, which makes fluctuating food prices a major factor of economic and social instability in the region, he remarked.

"With GCC population projected to grow to reach about 50 million over the next five years, officials, researchers and citizens alike should come together to draw a future strategic vision based on self-consciousness of the gravity of this issue and its implications and exploring the technology that helps us to do so," Woertz said calling for legislations to firm up the GCC strategy in this respect.

"The Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute showed that the UAE reacted with three different measures towards the financial crisis in 2008 in terms of food security through: price controls, build-up of strategic storage, and announcement of agro-investments abroad."

He warned that price controls are not tenable in the long run if not accompanied by some form of subsidy.

Stumbling blocks

"Strategic storage would benefit from international or regional cooperation in order to pool capacities and avoid unnecessary and expensive periods of storage," added Woertz.

He remarked that there is a large gap between the announcement of agro-investments and their actual implementation.

"Major stumbling blocks have been: insufficient infrastructure; political backlashes and lack of capacities in the UAE and complicated financing in the wake of the global financial crisis," Woertz said.

He called for strengthening of international food markets and regulations as more important for UAE food security than the search for exclusive bilateral access to food production, which, he said, is likely to remain elusive.

GCC countries import between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of their food. "This makes them vulnerable to external market influences beyond their control — such as the 2007-2008 world price spikes — and efforts are being made to boost food self-sufficiency," said Woertz.

"Strategic food reserves are also being developed to cope with price spikes and sudden shortages, with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain all creating facilities to stockpile staple foods," he said, adding that imports will still be critical for GCC countries.