The World Economic Forum has published a detailed report on how the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided sufficient food supplies during the lockdown imposed in response to COVID-19. The paper describes the steps taken by the UAE over the past four years to become more self-sufficient in their food supplies, limiting its dependence on imports. The forward-looking policies of the UAE leadership have allowed the Gulf country to overcome the health emergency of COVID-19 without difficulty, establishing itself as a model to follow for other countries around the world.
The effort – part of a broader push to produce more home-grown food amid fears climate change could trigger instability in the global food trade – started after the country was hit by food export bans during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the World Economic Forum affirms, indicating thatwhen the UAE went into lockdown in April to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, residents had the same reaction as millions of others around the world – they started panic-buying.
Nonetheless supermarket shelves have remained fully stocked, partly because the UAE has long had policies in place to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food from abroad,IsmahaneElouafi, Director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) noted. “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,” Elouafi said.
According to data from the World Bank, the contribution of agriculture to the country’s gross domestic product rose from $2.39 billion in 2012 to $3.06 billion in 2018. Currently ranking 21 out of 113 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, the UAE aims to be in the top 10 by 2021 and number one by mid-century. By then, the federal government hopes half the food Emiratis consume will be produced locally, compared to 20% today. Under the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy – which was officially launched in 2018, but had already been woven into government policy for several years before – the country has worked to boost domestic food production. It has built infrastructure, including complexes for cattle-breeding – and introduced financial measures, from exempting value-added tax on food produced on local farms to paying subsidies on fodder.
The report also shows how 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. The focus is 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.
In recent years, the UAE has seen a rise in the number of vertical farms, in which crops are grown stacked under LED lighting and watered with mists or drip systems. In Dubai, the country’s business and tourism hub, airline catering service Emirates Flight Catering and vertical farm operator Crop One Holdings have launched a $40-million joint venture to build the world’s largest vertical farm. Crop One Holdings says the 130,000 square-foot (12,077 sq m) farm – due to be completed this year – will produce 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg) of pesticide- and herbicide-free fruits and vegetables daily, using 99% less water than traditional farms.
The Dubai-based ICBA works with local ministries, farmers’ associations and businesses to introduce climate-resilient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum to farmers. “The global food production system is currently dominated by just a few staple crops – this needs to change,” IsmahaneElouafi affirmed. For Kapoor at Madar Farms, which has been growing leafy greens and microgreens in vertical systems since 2017, the move into tech-enabled agriculture is inevitable to deal with challenges like climate change and the novel coronavirus. As The world will have to shift toward controlled-environment agriculture.