ABU DHABI: United Arab Emirates has grown a small but growing share of its own organic tomatoes in the past four years, aiming to shore up food security in an import-dependent desert country.
This effort is a part of broader push to produce more home-grown food among fears that the climate change could trigger instability in the global food trade. This project started after the country was hit by food export bans during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Today, its move to build up food resilience is paying off early in the face of another crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) went into lockdown in April to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, residents started panic-buying.
“The instinct to stock up made sense in a country where more than 80% of food is imported,” said Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
“Nonetheless supermarket shelves have remained fully stocked, partly because the UAE had policies in place to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food from abroad, but in the face of the pandemic, the UAE’s confidence that it will continue to have enough food is bolstered by its success in growing its own, using innovations like vertical farming and climate-resilient crops,” she added.
“Thanks to the work being done to harness the benefits of innovation, agriculture is becoming possible and profitable in a country with harsh climatic conditions,” Dr. Ismahane Elouafi the ICBA’s director general said.
According to World Bank, the contribution of agriculture in the country’s gross domestic product rose from $2.39 billion in 2012 to $3.06 billion in 2018. The UAE aims to be in the top 10 by 2021 and number one by mid-century. By then, the federal government expects that half the food residents consume will be produced locally, compared to 20% today.
Under the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy, which was officially launched in 2018, the country is working to boost domestic food production. By building infrastructure, including complexes for cattle-breeding and introducing financial measures, from exempting value-added tax on food produced on local farms to paying subsidies on fodder. But traditional farming methods can only go so far in a country with limited supplies of fresh water and arable land.
Last year, the World Resources Institute classified the UAE as under “extremely high water stress,” meaning more than 80% of available surface and groundwater supply is withdrawn on average every year. Bulk of that water is used by the agricultural sector. Combined with a warming climate and a growing population, this is causing available groundwater levels to drop by 0.5 cm (0.2 inches) per year. To meet the country’s freshwater needs, the government is increasingly turning to energy intensive desalination methods.
Another challenge is that less than 1% of the UAE’s land is arable, according to the World Bank. This lead to focus on finding ways to farm with fewer resources. “Which is where technology and experimenting with new crops can help, “said Sajid Maqsood, associate professor in the College of Food and Agriculture at United Arab Emirates University.
“Branching out into new crops is key to the UAE’s quest to become self-sustaining. ICBA, based on Dubai works with local ministries, farmers’ associations and businesses to introduce climate-resilient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum to farmers,” said the ICBA’s director general Dr. Ismahane Elouafi.
“The global food production system is currently dominated by just a few staple crops and this needs to change,” she said.