For answers to food insecurity, look to the Gulf

An arid climate and a historical reliance on imported produce is fuelling some innovate thinking about agriculture, food waste and supply chains

The UAE has used planning, investment and research to rise to the challenge of maintaining reliable sources of food. Nicole Hill / The National
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If it is true that an army marches on its stomach, the same can be said for whole nations. Along with providing secure borders, public safety and accessible health care, one of a government’s critical tasks is making sure its people have access to safe and plentiful food. Countries that face challenging physical environments understand the necessity of food security better than many.

Looking around the Emirates in 2024, it is fair to say that securing regular food supplies is a challenge to which the UAE has risen with aplomb. A measure of this success will be seen this week in Dubai, where Gulfood, which is one of the largest annual food and beverage sourcing events in the world, begins today. More than 5,500 exhibitors from over 190 countries will gather to explore a changing industry where sustainability is becoming as critical to success as profit. That such an event – now in its 29th year – is taking place in a country that imports much of its produce indicates the success the UAE has had in developing secure and reliable food supplies.

Not every country is so fortunate, however. In its global outlook, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme warn that acute food insecurity is likely to deteriorate further in 18 hunger hotspots, including Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Sudan. Food insecurity is both a consequence of instability and a driver of it. Food’s inextricable link with national security has been a growing source of debate for policymakers, something that was on show at this week’s Munich Security Conference, where attendees highlighted the need for co-operation to build sustainable food systems.

Even countries that are not gripped by armed conflict can face significant hurdles in making sure their citizens have enough to eat. A World Bank report released last month found that although global food security conditions were stabilising slowly, disparities between income groups are increasing. The bank’s World Food Security Outlook says that to provide everyone with a basic social safety net that covers 25 per cent of daily caloric needs, it estimates annual global financing needs at approximately $90 billion from now until 2030. This is a major task, and people are searching for answers.

It is perhaps in this region, where the conditions for growing food seem so inauspicious, that such answers can be found. Many of the GCC countries, which are acutely aware of vulnerabilities in food security, are leading the way with tech and financing solutions, and have the resources to develop impressive ways of increasing sustainable production.

One of these promising solutions was unveiled last week, when Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s sustainability and innovation centre, launched an indoor vertical farm with agricultural technology firm Alesca Technologies. Housed in two repurposed shipping containers, the project’s automated equipment and AI software can help grow several varieties of fresh leafy greens all year round using 90-95 per cent less water than conventional farms.

Elsewhere in the GCC, food security is being woven into the fabric of new developments. In December, Saudi Arabia’s Neom project announced the launch of Topian, a food company that “seeks to redefine food production, distribution, and consumption through the creation of sustainable and innovative food solutions”. This represents a willingness to break from the old paradigm of importing food wholesale, instead aiming to maximise resources and achieve self-sufficiency as much as possible.

Such developments are individual parts of a wider policy commitment to food security. The UAE has set a goal to become the top country in the Global Food Security Index by 2051, has taken steps to reduce the scourge of food waste, and a report published in April last year found that the Emirates had the lowest risk among 56 countries in the Middle East and Africa region from issues such as supply chain disruption, inflation and food insecurity. Achieving such results takes commitment and know-how but it also offers a template that others can adapt to their own needs. When it comes to making sure people have enough to eat, the Middle East has some valuable lessons for the world.

Published: February 19, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: February 20, 2024, 8:55 AM