UAE cannot keep importing crops, says seminar speaker

By Caline Malek

Published by the National ( ) on 3 March 2015

DUBAI // The UAE cannot continue to import large amounts of food because of increasingly volatile prices resulting from climate change and fluctuations in the price of oil, said the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad).

Kanayo Nwanze said the UAE, along with other Gulf states, should invest abroad, maximise the output of small and medium scale farmers as well as optimise date production to generate by-products such as oils and sugar.

He was addressing officials from the Ministry of Environment and Water, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and other local and international agricultural institutions during a seminar on the cost of neglect in agriculture, rural transformation and development at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (Icba) in Dubai on Tuesday.

“In 2000, GCC countries spent about 25 billion dollars importing food and it is projected that, by 2020, your import bill will be about 52 to 56 billion dollars a year,” he said. “That’s a lot of money and if oil prices stabilise at 50 to 60 dollars, [which] is about half what it was this time last year, the solution is not in importing more food.”

He said the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development (AAAID) had identified Sudan, Egypt and parts of the GCC as adequate for farming investments.

“However, large-scale agriculture is not always the solution to everything,” Mr Nwanze said. “It is possible but, even in developed countries, you have large and small scale agriculture and what we have not exploited enough in the GCC is how to maximise the outputs of small and medium scale enterprises and farmers.”

He said there were areas where there was enough water to optimise crops, with irrigation improvements on a daily basis. “One drop can give you a crop today and you can optimise with micro-irrigation systems and fertiliser application to get to the roots,” he said. “So there are opportunities to optimise the productivity level of small and medium scale enterprises.”

Ifad is currently in discussions with the ministry to provide support through its expertise. “[The GCC] also hasn’t collectively optimised its date production,” he added. “Dates not just for eating. You can do a lot with them, including various oils and sugar substitutes, but I am not sure [the Gulf] has actually developed the by-products and this is where there is possibility for the UAE to bring the expertise and [set up] the infrastructure.”

He said local families could build their own small industries for processing dates up to a stage where they add value to it before selling to larger companies.

“I believe there are ample opportunities for partnership for the AAAID with Ifad, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Icba to help invest in your SMEs and create opportunities for them to increase their productivity level,” Mr Nwanze said.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Icba’s director general, said there needed to be a shift away from three staple crops, which are maize, rice and wheat.

“We can’t keep it at three crops like maize where productivity is going down,” she said. “The date palm has a huge potential but there are also other crops that will show up with climate change. Maybe quinoa will be the crop of the future or salicornia as a biofuel on the seaside so we have to be open to introduce other crops that are more adequate for the region, especially with climate change as the effects in the region will really be tremendous.”

An agreement is expected to be signed between Icba and the FAO in ten days to help regional countries in sustainable agriculture.

“We will bring technology from Icba to the region because we involve all regional countries,” said Ad Spijkers, FAO’s subregional office coordinator for the GCC and Yemen. “These deal with water and saline resistant varieties of crops, fodder, certain plants and trees because we have to deal with climate change so we need new varieties of plants which are resistant against more drought and salinity.”