The country’s experience in crucial and strategic area should encourage other countries
Food security was already emerging as a key challenge to the peoples of the MENA region even before the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic which exacerbated the problem by disrupting supply chains all over the globe.
The problem was compounded by the rising threat of climate change, where the Middle East appears to be a major victim as indicated by record low and high temperatures, drought, flooding, soil degradation, forest fires, wars and man-made disasters.
Now the war in Ukraine has added another dimension to the crisis of food security as both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat and vegetable oils. The world is facing unprecedented disruptions in supplies of food while fluctuations in energy prices are creating logistical nightmares.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation published a report last December that revealed that 69 million people in the region did not have access to adequate supplies of food in 2020, and 50.2 million people — 11 per cent of the population — were undernourished. Aside from the immediate health and economic effects there are also the sociopolitical dimensions that could translate into protests and political upheavals.
One country that has been taking direct action to deal with the food security challenges is the United Arab Emirates which, for years, has been implementing a vision towards achieving a sustainable farming ecosystem and food security. Last May Dubai launched the Food Tech Valley, a new project aimed at tripling UAE’s food production and positioning it as a global destination for the industry.
“Food and water security are among the priorities of the UAE government for the post-coronavirus period, and the objective is to launch specialist initiatives that will ensure our readiness to confront all types of crises,” said His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the launch of the project.
Dubai based Sabrin Rahman, Managing Director and Head of Sustainability Europe, Middle East, Africa and Turkey for HSBC, said back then that Food Tech Valley city will help further develop vertical farming and other advanced agriculture technologies as well as serving as a global destination for start-ups and industry experts in the food ecosystem. It will also be an economic zone, which is particularly significant considering that the size of the agricultural tech market is projected to grow from $13.5 billion to $22 billion over the next four years.
The ambitious UAE vision took another leap forward with a new initiative led by the UAE and the US which aims to double investment in climate-smart agriculture over a period of five years — from the $4 billion announced by US President Joe Biden at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November to $8 billion by the time COP27 takes place in Sharm El-shaikh, Egypt, this year, according to news reports.
The initiative — the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, or AIM for Climate — brings together more than 140 global partners from the public, private and non-profit sectors with a view to doubling investment in science-based and data-driven decision and policymaking relating to two of the most pressing issues facing the MENA region: food security and climate change, media reported last week.
Like most countries in the MENA region, the UAE is heavily dependent on food imports — in 2019 the UAE food trade value (imports, exports, and re-exports), amounted to $24.7 billion. Any serious disruption in food supplies will affect all countries both rich and poor. The need for ambitious initiatives to invest in scientific solutions and innovations has never been greater.
These initiatives must also have a spillover effect, where countries can share their experiences with others in the region. The set of new challenges, pandemics, climate change and global conflicts, should open the way to fostering Inter-Regional trade in addition to creating regional funds to invest in countries that have the arable land, water resources but lack new technologies and necessary funding to increase production and expand the use of available land.
Sudan is a good example as well as other countries in North Africa and the Levant. In the case of Sudan, once called the Arab world food basket, wheat imports in 2020, reached $530 million, becoming the 27th largest importer of wheat in the world. At the same time wheat production recorded a historic 1.115 million-ton harvest from 315,500 hectares of farmland in 2020. Experts agree that new technologies, investments and good management could double Sudan’s wheat production in a few years.
Aside from creating a regional food basket network that could decrease reliance on far away markets and alleviate logistical challenges, such a network would have an immediate effect on sociopolitical issues such as unemployment, poverty as well as undernourishment. Inter-Regional security is becoming a must in today’s world.
Speaking in late February after the inaugural ministerial meeting of AIM for Climate at Expo 2020 Dubai, Mariam Almheiri, the UAE’s minister for climate change and environment said partnerships such as AIM for Climate are critical to help arid countries such as those in the MENA region to learn from the experiences of others.
She added: “We are keen to share our experience with our partners and work with other countries to address critical challenges of our food systems.” Almheiri told guests at the Expo 2020 Dubai meeting that “we see ourselves as an open lab to innovate, discover and put forward solutions.”
The UAE’s experience in such a crucial and strategic area of food security should encourage other countries in the region to launch their own initiatives that would complement that of the UAE and lead to forming a regional alliance against hunger and dependency on outside markets.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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