Food and water are the basic requirements for human survival, and yet each day millions of people still go without. At the turn of the millennia the United Nations (UN) pledged to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. But, as the last of the sand trickled from the hourglass, there were still some 1.2 billion people (one in nine) surviving on less than $1.25 a day.
Food security has a big part to play in the hunger problem. While many areas of the world actually produce sufficient volumes of food, a lack of infrastructure prevents it from reaching the plate. And the issue is more urgent than ever: the UN estimates food production will need to rise by 70% by 2050 to accommodate the 9.6 billion people it predicts will be occupying the planet. But even if this hike in production is realised, its full impact can only be felt if significant improvements are made to the post-production value chain.
Until then, the problem of an increasing, and increasingly hungry, population promises to affect every corner of the globe. As His Excellency Felix Koskei, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, surmises, “hunger cannot be kicked out just by saying it.”
Taking action, however, isn’t always a simple task. Many factors are hindering food security efforts, including a number of region-specific considerations. The Middle East hosts a burgeoning population and much of MENA suffers from lack of water and arable land (according to data index Nation Master, only 0.61% of the UAE’s land was farmable in 2013). The result is a region—particularly the GCC—almost entirely reliant on imports; Qatar imports over 90% of its foodstuffs.
But while the Middle East has, thus far, supported its population via imports—and aided the economies of exporting countries in the process—such an approach is not sustainable. As His Excellency Khadim Abdullah Al Darei, Vice Chairman of UAE-based agriculture company, Al Dahra Agriculture, notes, “we already feel the pressure of food security when there is a sandstorm and everyone runs to the supermarket to stock up, fearful that supplies will run out.” With the GCC’s population set to soar by 30% to reach 53.5 million by 2020, strategies for sustainability are a priority.
It’s something the UAE government is acutely aware of. In 2011 the sAbu Dhabi Food Control Authority launched the UAE Food Security Project. Broken down into four distinct phases’ the project seeks to provide both short and long term solutions to improve the Emirates’ food security capabilities according to three key pillars: availability, affordability and accessibility. The four stages of the project are:
Covers a detailed quantitative analysis of the supply and demand for the main categories of food consumed in the UAE. It includes an analysis of the supply chain for each commodity and both top down and bottom up analyses of demand.
Provides short term recommendations for actions to improve food security, focusing in particular on the establishment of strategic reserves for each category.
Covers longer term recommendations for enhancing domestic production and improving supply chain security for imports.
Covers the management and governance framework for food security.
The success of Phases Two and Three depend largely upon the public sector encouraging private sector investment in sustainable initiatives. Such activities include improving waste water management for irrigation purposes (a number of new plants in Saudi Arabia are already addressing this issue) and engineering new technologies to counteract the region’s largely arid environment. Advancements in hydrophobic sand – placing a layer under the topsoil can prevent water from escaping – promise to improve the GCC’s ability to produce its own food in coming years.
Another key focus is encouraging private companies to invest in international satellite facilities and silos. A year ago Al Ghurair Group, a key local food provider with plants already in the UAE, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Lebanon, began renting grain silos in Egypt. The move seriously boosted their storage capacity. Sameera Fernandez, Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications, Al Ghurair Investments claims that the company has “plans for further expansion as part of the food security strategy and the target is to have one and a half year’s food supply reserve for the UAE.” The initiative should be welcomed. Perhaps rather worryingly, Essa Al Ghurair, Chairman of Al Ghurair Resources, estimates the Emirates only has three months’ worth of food in storage, should it be needed.
Aside from strategic stockpiling, Al Darei advocates the GCC making use of its geographically blessed location and the easy-access trading corridor to Africa. Though embroiled in many of its own security and development issues—food or otherwise—Africa is rich in sugar, tea, coffee, rice and other grains, making it a proverbial pantry for its Arab neighbours. South Africa, Nigeria and Angola chart highest on the export leadership board. But despite African governments encouraging Middle Eastern countries to take from their lush terrain, there are a number of logistical problems in the way.
As Koskei notes, despite boasting a bountiful food supply, parts of Africa are “locked in a spectacular battle against hunger.” Corners of the continent are struggling to feed themselves, let alone anyone else. The problem, amongst others, is one of infrastructure: poor transport networks, technical capabilities and processes are blighting the continent’s food security status. Quintin Gray, Agricultural Counsellor with the US Department of Agriculture, notes that although 95% of crops in Sub-Saharan Africa are rain fed, one third still go to waste due to post-harvest-loses. This figure, Gray says, can be dramatically reduced by “improving the value chain and tackling the handling and distribution of food.”
Koskei would also like to see an overhaul of the African food security system and the creation of more free zones and other special economic zones to encourage international investment from countries such as the UAE. Projects such as KenInvest, an initiative by the Kenyan government, are working to make incoming business ventures as simple and seamless as possible.
With the Gulf still overwhelmingly dependent on imports, assisting its African neighbours’ food security strategies will prove a mutually beneficial endeavour. But Al Darei notes that “there needs to be a concerted commitment from the public sector to encourage the private sector to invest in Africa’s food markets.”
Referring back to the global nature of the problem and that daunting 70% figure, Gray identifies five areas directly affecting food security and measures that should be adopted by governments worldwide. His advice includes: incentivising a youthful agriculture workforce to stay on the farm, maximising production on arable land, investing in new technologies, exploring feasible and sustainable solutions to climate change-related issues and improving the value chain to reduce post-harvest crop losses and waste.
The UN may have missed out on a poverty and hunger victory last year, but there is no time for despondency. With the next big food security milestone only 35 years away—a comparatively short time in the grand scheme of things—NGOs, governments, public and private sectors must rally together to revolutionise food security. In the meantime, the GCC still relies on its neighbours for dinner. For how long this can continue remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the region needs action, not just food for thought.