Dubai: Soon, your visits to the supermarket will be a different experience. As you browse the shelves for your tomatoes, dates, leafy greens, meat or fish, you will find there will be far more options of premium local produce than currently available.
Reason: The UAE has launched its first-ever Food Basket which has identified 18 different food items (see infographic) whose large-scale local production in some cases is set to make prices more competitive. Not just that, many items will have an all-new ‘Emirates Sustainable Agriculture Label’, which means they are ‘Agriculture-tech’ or ‘Ag-Tech’ products complying to standards of sustainable production, water efficiency, without chemicals and in line with innovative technologies. Basically they will be “clean and traceable foods.”
Food consumption is growing at the rate of 12 per cent a year. Looking at climate change and global food demand, we need to ensure we have different plans in place to secure food for today and the future.
Making these revelations to Gulf News in an exclusive interview at her office, Minister of State for Food Security Mariam Al Muhairi said, “We are looking at a domestic production target of over 100,000 tons by 2021 in line with the National Food Security Strategy 2051 announced in November.”
100000tons is the target set for domestic production of foods by 2021
She said, “We need to understand what’s in our food basket and say which of these foods makes sense to be grown in the UAE and still have a competitive price, compared to imports. We arrived at the basket based on consumption patterns, local production capacity and nutritional value of foods. The basket is dynamic and could change in a few years depending on these factors.”
UAE’s food imports currently stand at 90 per cent. How will the new thrust on domestic production impact this figure? “It is difficult to put a number on where we want to head in terms of imports,” said Al Muhairi. “We need to factor the many challenges — less than five per cent of our land is arable and water is scarce. Our population is growing rapidly — it is expected to go up from nine million now to 11.5 million by 2025.”
11.5million is the estimated population of the UAE by 2025
A graduate of the Latifa School for Girls, the minister, who has a master’s degree in engineering from Germany, said, “Food consumption is growing at the rate of 12 per cent a year. Looking at climate change and global food demand, we need to ensure we have different plans in place to secure food for today and the future.
“We have to be in a position to absorb food shocks, secure the continuity of food supplies and also enhance the quality of food.”
12is the percentage rate at which food consumption is growing in the UAE
Another challenge, she said, pertains to the consumption behaviour of the diverse mix of people (UAE is home to people of over 200 nationalities), their eating patterns, and the way we deal with food wastage and loss.
The government is not the only entity that will make the change happen. “Food security is not just the government’s responsibility,” she said. “Individuals, families and communities also have to play their part. When you choose your food, you are taking part in the food security outlook. If we make sure we educate our communities and give them the tools to do that, we could nudge them to go for more sustainable foods and make healthier choices. Also, the community is involved when we talk of consumption habits or reducing food loss and waste.”
Explaining the difference between food security and self-sufficiency, she said, “People tend to relate food security to self-sufficiency, which is not the case. Food security for the UAE means enabling all residents to have access to safe, nutritious, sufficient and affordable food to lead a healthy and active lifestyle at all times.”
90%UAE's current food imports
Taking the example of Singapore, she said, “Singapore is No. 1 in the Global Food Security Index even though it imports 90 per cent of its food. Why? Because it has managed to have access to food at all times.”
According to her, the UAE, which ranks 31 in the index, aims to make it within the top 10 by 2021 and to the first place by 2051. “To be able to do that, we need to diversify, with some food grown at home, some food grown by our companies abroad and some imported from different sources.”
With land and water being scarce in the UAE, she said local companies can invest abroad to boost supplies. “There are many possibilities they can explore across all continents. Recent investments have been made in Romania, Egypt, Sudan, Serbia, and Cambodia. Lately, Uganda has also allocated 2,500 hectares of land as an agricultural free zone dedicated to the UAE. The government’s role is to facilitate agribusiness to increase food trade of quality products.”
She said the UAE’s food security stems mainly from its economic and political stability. “We have the buying power but we need to be prepared for what lies in the future concerning the global food systems. At the same time we should work on the opportunities of becoming a world leading hub in innovation-driven food security by enhancing facilitation for agribusiness and increasing R&D and place more emphasis on sustainable and efficient ways of food production.”
New economic sector
The Office of Food Security has introduced 10 strategic initiatives as part of a “new economic sector” to encourage the adoption of new technologies in the agricultural sector. “We wanted to develop a new economic sector with food systems that are sustainable and don’t use water excessively. We had to first see what were the barriers.”
So a joint programme between the Future Food Security Office and the Government Accelerators was undertaken. It was attended by over 50 representatives of federal and local government authorities and the private sector.
“The idea of coming together was to see how best we could remove existing barriers companies faced in the sector and come up with solutions in 100 days. The result was the set of 10 initiatives.
“The first — an Emirates Sustainability Agriculture Label — tells the consumer that the product has been grown in a sustainable way, using innovative technologies, without chemicals or soil and in keeping with human and animal rights. This is the first national logo of its kind to be introduced anywhere in the world. Unlike earlier, when investors would require four-five different licences to set up a facility, the new economic sector provides a single unified licence, under which activities have been consolidated and updated, reducing costs by 60 per cent.
“It also offers a hassle-free framework for providing agriculture finance and an Ag-tech loan guarantee and supply chain financing. In other words, cash flows have been streamlined.
“Similarly, a new Ag-tech building code allows for hi-tech greenhouses or closed system fish farms to be built to required specifications while a food security data framework and platform (bayanat.ae) provides easy access to information.
“Investors can also benefit from a new standard for aquaculture in keeping with Good Aquaculture Practice, besides a local aquaculture atlas that shows places in the UAE that are suitable for fish farming and a dedicated fish feed facility.”
The minister said 70-80 per cent of the operational costs of fish farming derives from feed which is currently being imported. So it was important to build a sustainable fish feed facility locally.
What Ag-Tech means
Ag-Tech covers advanced agricultural methods that differ from traditional ways of farming. Among other things, it encourages the use of “controlled-environment agriculture” (CEA) that includes efficient technologies to manage inputs and maximise outputs, aquaculture or farming of fish and other marine life in controlled conditions, vertical farming where plants are grown indoor in vertically stacked layers using artificial light, regulated humidity, temperature and minimal pesticides, thus enabling large-scale production of vegetables in the absence of soil, sunlight and chemicals. It also covers drones to map farming areas and adoption of sensors that can help boost yields.
Hi-Tech Agriculture in the UAE
The UAE can boast of several hi-tech projects:
- Al Dahra BayWa Greenhouse in Al Ain
- Pure Harvest, Al Ain
- Fish Farm LLC, Dubai, Fujairah
- Al Qouz-based Badia Farms
- Masdar’s eco villas initiative — Bustani with Madar Farms
- Upcoming indoor farm by Emirates Flight Catering and Crop One Holdings of the US
- Dedicated fish feed facility for which a letter of intent has just been signed
The National Food Security Strategy:
The National Food Security Strategy 2051 was presented by Minister of State for Food Security Mariam Al Muhaiari in November 2018 during the UAE Government’s second Annual Meetings. The meetings were chaired by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The food security strategy was among seven national strategies that outlined the early stages of implementing the UAE Centennial 2071 goals in vital sectors.
The strategy, which includes 38 short and long-term key initiatives, seeks to facilitate the global food trade, diversify food import sources and identify alternative supply schemes, covering three to five sources for each major food category.
The strategy aims to:
- Make the UAE the world’s best in the Global Food Security Index by 2051 and among the top 10 countries by 2021.
- Develop a comprehensive national system based on enabling sustainable food production through the use of modern technologies.
- Enhance local production.
- Develop international partnerships to diversify food sources.
- Activate legislation and policies that contribute to improving nutrition.
- Activate legislation and policies to reduce waste.