Even before the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fragility of global supply chains, the UAE government had turned its attention to reducing the nation’s reliance on imports. In November 2018, Abu Dhabi launched the UAE National Food Security Strategy 2051 to champion agribusiness trade and promote the technology-based production of food, known as agritech.
“Agritech is one of the key drivers to enhance food security,” says UAE Minister of State for Food and Water Security Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri.
Low rainfall and a shortage of arable land has traditionally limited the region’s capacity to farm, so it has relied on its long-standing position as a global trading and transport hub to import the majority of its food.
However, with microclimates under threat from climate change, traditional farms are struggling to keep up with the growing demand for high-quality food from and ever-increasing population. Relying on hydrocarbon revenues to finance high food costs in this competitive environment is not sustainable in the long term.
Stakeholders are turning to technology for solutions.
“We can see how agritech is transforming the UAE through the country's growing landscape of controlled environment agriculture, also known as CEAs,” says Almheiri.
The minister says that these CEAs can take several forms: indoor greenhouses; polytunnels that typically use 95 per cent less water than traditional farms; and recirculating aquaculture systems.
“One of the biggest success stories has been aquaculture, which is helping to meet the UAE’s strong demand for seafood,” says Almheiri.
Building on tradition
Despite the advances in food production methods, it is unlikely that the dietary needs of the population will be entirely met by home-grown produce.
“Can you grow wheat or barley in the market here? Of course you can,” says Djamal Djouhri, CEO of Al-Ghurair Resources Oils & Proteins (AGROP) and Al-Ghurair Foods (AGF). “Will you be competitive? I can bet [you won’t be].”
Djouhri says that traditional farming around the world is being improved by technology.
“In large-scale farming, artificial intelligence and machine learning has become very important,” Djouhri says. “Starting from the weather, all the way through to the behavior of the consumer.
“That will help in predicting the crop and avoiding large swings and volatility.”
Technology is making it possible to produce more food using fewer resources, but this alone may not be enough to satisfy the needs of the growing population.
Sustainability strategist and CEO of Agriculture Consulting Henry Gordon Smith says that it is vital to change consumer habits.
“I think it is also going to be about adapting the diet,” he says. “We have created a culture where we buy whatever we want, eat whatever we want, whenever we want.”
“If we live a more seasonal lifestyle as far as consumption is concerned, that is another way so solve food security challenges beyond just trying to grow more food and throwing more tech at the problem.”
Gordon Smith explains that food waste is also a major issue in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“The culture of consumption needs to shift when it comes to food security,” he says. "Globally this is an issue. We produce enough food to feed everyone. It is a matter of distribution.”
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