UAE Food Security Challenges

The UAE faces significant challenges to producing food domestically. Only 0.5% of the land mass is arable, extreme heat limits the capacity to cultivate and store food, and the country receives very minimal rainfall. As a result, the UAE currently imports roughly 90% of its food supplies.

1. The UAE’s soil composition is predominantly made up of sandy soil, which is difficult to cultivate without additives and fertilizers

  • Sandy soil (75%) has low nutrient retention and requires large quantities of irrigation water to cultivate
  • Salty soil (8%) affects the plant’s uptake of nutrients and has reduced microbiological activity important for plant growth compared to other types of soil
  • The remaining 10% are other types of soil not suited for agriculture

2. Only 7% of soil (~490k hectares) is rich in gypsum and lime and has suitable properties for agriculture use

  • Total agricultural area in the UAE has decreased by 3% annually over the last 14 years as a result of steady desertification and soil degradation caused by natural and manmade causes:
    • Natural causes:
      • Wind erosion: Major cause behind irreversible land degradation (1.1m hectares in total lost to-date)
      • Natural salinization: Increasing salt content in soil due to seawater infiltration in marine sediments, degrading soil in coastal areas mainly in Abu Dhabi
      • Harsh climate conditions: High temperatures and low rainfall leads to low soil moisture and accelerated desertification
    • Manmade causes:
      • Irrigation malpractice: Overwatering of plants or use of saline groundwater for irrigation, increases vulnerability to pests, diseases, and root degradation
      • Excessive use of additives: Fertilizers containing excessive nitrogen dehydrates soil and leads to high emissions of greenhouse gases
      • Overgrazing: Plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods without sufficient recovery periods, reducing land productivity and increasing desertification

3. The majority of UAE’s water supply is from groundwater and desalinated water , resources that are becoming increasingly scarce or costly to produce:

  • Groundwater (44%) is being extracted 25x faster than the natural recharge rate due to hot climatic conditions, inefficient irrigation techniques, overpumping, and cultivation of high water use crops such as date palms and Rhode grass
  • Desalinated water (42%) is increasing as a substitute for UAE’s depleting groundwater; however, producing desalinated water increases greenhouse gas emissions, soil salinity, and contaminates groundwater if production and disposal is not done properly
  • Treated wastewater (14%) is an alternative source of water for agriculture purposes; however, only 52% of water is currently being recycled due to an underdeveloped transmission and distribution system
  • The UAE Ministry of Energy & Industry launched the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, which aims to reduce total demand for water resources by 21%

4. Pests continue to spread and reduce post-harvest yields, and chemical pesticides have exacerbated the stress on agricultural land

  • Pests in the UAE (e.g., red palm weevils, locusts, beetles, moths, and rats) feed on crops, contaminate stored food, and sometimes even damage infrastructure, resulting in the overall reduction of post-harvest yields
  • Common pesticides contain toxic chemicals that harm crops and humans as well, while also breeding pesticide-immune pests that are more difficult to exterminate
  • The pesticide consumption in agriculture is much higher in the UAE than other parts of the world: 9.86kg/ha in the UAE, 1.9kg/ha in Europe, 1.5kg/ha in the US, 0.5kg/ha in India
  • To reduce chemical pesticide use, the UAE is increasing its regulation and developing environmentally-friendly pest control techniques, such as pheromone traps , light traps , and drone technology

5. Production of plant and animal products has limited complementarity with domestic consumption patterns:

  • Plant production:
    • Field crops comprise 60% of UAE’s overall production
    • Staple crops such as wheat, which is responsible for a third of calorie consumption, is not commercially cultivated in the UAE due to its water-intensive requirements
    • Animal production: – While livestock supply has increased steadily since 2012, only a small share is used for commercial meat production due to preference for personal use
    • Production of fisheries has been relatively stagnant; less than 2% is produced through aquaculture due to lack of awareness, regulation, and incentives to shift technologies

6. Farmers and investors are hesitant to integrate production technology due to limited training and advisory services

  • The majority of youth are disengaged with the agriculture industry; in a recent survey of 141 farm owners in the UAE, 90% of them were 41 years old and above
  • The study showed that willingness to adopt technology into their agricultural production is positively correlated with three main factors: farm income, level of education, and water salinity; however, only 50% of farmers introduced to hydroponic technology incorporate this into their operations
  • UAE University (UAEU) is the only university with a dedicated faculty for food and agriculture innovation, limiting the country’s capacity to train its next generation of farmers

7. There are gaps in food handling throughout the supply chain, leading to food waste in all stages of production

  • Production: Pests infest farmland and storage facilities, contaminating the supply
  • Distribution: Hot weather, especially during the summer, causes food to spoil quickly, adding stress to distributors to keep food cool and clean
  • Consumption: Food is not consumed by the customer often due to oversupply, but artificial intelligence technology is helping accelerate food waste reduction efforts. “Winnow Vision”, an AI-powered food technology company, installs smart cameras at hotels and restaurants that detect unpopular dishes being thrown away to inform future food purchases.
  • Waste management: Converting food waste into commercial opportunities such as biofuels and fertilizers remains an emerging market with a few players (e.g., Dubai Carbon, Imdaad, and Etihad)

8. Adoption of food waste management policy and technology has been slow

  • Despite strong policy interventions, the UAE is consistently ranked as one of the top producers of food waste
  • Federal and emirate-level laws and regulations focus on agricultural operations, food safety, water use, and food standards; whereas food waste laws and regulations are limited


Meet Our Judges: Feroz Sanaulla

29 April 2020

We spoke with Feroz Sanaulla, Senior Strategic Advisor at Roland Berger, to talk about his thoughts about food technology trends in the UAE and abroad. What is your favorite memory related to food? From street food in Delhi and Bangkok, sushi and okonomiyaki in Kyoto, winery food tours in Napa Valley, and pub food in Dublin, my travels have taken me to many places. I continue to enjoy the nuances of regional foods and like to go to small dives over large established restaurants. Going to corner dives is not just for satiating an appetite but also for enjoying many strange and enlightening conversations. I normally avoid popular restaurants. Food security is more important than ever given the disruptions to the global supply chain caused by COVID-19. What are the best policy practices that the UAE should implement to boost its food security during this time? Food reserves are an important insurance against disruptions. I would suggest the UAE to analyze the total food production in smallholding farms and gauge the amount of pilferage and waste. With this, it would be good to have centralized storage facilities and a marketplace to get the food to market quickly and efficiently. UAE could also look at canning facilities for long term storage of food. For example, I am helping a major regional agri-business develop a UAE-based canned mushroom facility. Surveys have shown that youth are increasingly disengaged from food and agriculture work. How do we renew youth engagement in this area? It is important to have youth spend time outdoors and see food production for themselves. There should be more pick and purchase farms where youth can pick their own fruits like strawberries, blueberries and bring them home. This would have the youth understand the farm to plate process and get them involved in food production. The government can also sponsor farm work programs where students can get extra credit for having worked on a farm for 2-3 months. What are books, papers, and/or articles that you are reading about food security that you would recommend? My current favorite book is Full Planet, Empty Plates by Lester Brown. He takes an environmentalist view on food production and security. His focus is not just about yield management but also about the conservation of resources.



Meet Our Judges: Nicole Thorpe

1 March 2020

We are proud to announce that we have partnered with an incredible panel of experts to judge The FoodTech Challenge submissions. Our panel is comprised of local and international experts on agriculture from academia, private sector, and policy circles. We spoke with Nicole Thorpe, Founding Director of Cultinova, to talk about her thoughts about food technology trends in the UAE and abroad. What is your favorite memory related to food? Having the luxury of access to a healthy diet, I associate food with quality time with family and friends. One of my fondest memories is about the time I took my children, then 8 and 5 years of age, to a raspberry field on the outskirts of town to hand-pick berries and red currants. I remember how much they enjoyed eating fresh fruit straight off the plant, whilst simultaneously gaining an appreciation of the work involved in harvesting food. When we got home, we made our very own jam. There is nothing better than a pot of jam filled with goodness and memories! What are the essential components of building a sustainable and healthy food system, particularly in rapidly urbanizing cities? The clue is in the title: we need to adopt a systems-thinking approach, where we understand and address food systems’ complex interactions and relationships. With this big picture view, we can create holistic, future-proof systems which adapt to changing urban conditions. Some of the key components to building healthy food systems are: Openness to various business modes (including social enterprise models) Openness to adoption of technology / innovative cultivation methods Policy conducive to entrepreneurial activity and collaboration Youth STEM education that puts greater emphasis on technology and nutrition Consumer awareness of sustainable food production, consumption and waste avoidance What exciting innovations in Internet of Things technology have promising applications in the UAE? Given the UAE’s harsh climate and scarcity of arable land and water, I see great potential of applying IoT to the production of crops in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Advances in technology and IoT have facilitated innovative cultivation methods in places previously deemed unsuitable for plant production, such as disused tunnels, warehouses, basements, rooftops, etc. Exciting opportunities exist in the intelligent and dynamic optimization of growth environments tailored to specific contexts, stages of plant development and growers’ goals. The collection of data related to plant development generates a holistic view of food production in CEA. At Cultinova, we see great value in the precision control of growth parameters, specifically LED lighting and nutrient delivery in CEA. Such fine-tuning of growth factors optimizes water and fertilizer use, reduces energy consumption and improves size and quality of yield. Surveys have shown that youth are increasingly disengaged from food and agriculture work. How do we renew youth engagement in this area? In my opinion, IoT provides the ideal platform and tools for youth engagement. Tech-savvy millennials are likely to become more engaged with food and food production using technology. However, more emphasis needs to be placed on STEM education. Incorporating high-tech agriculture, CEA and vertical farming into curricula is essential in engaging and educating the next generation of growers. What are books, papers, and/or articles that you’re reading about food security that you would recommend? I recommend the following readings to learn more about food security and systems: Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City by Dr. Robert Biel FAO publications, such as Sustainable Food Systems: Concept and Framework Nexus: The Water-Energy-Food Security Resource Platform Additional reading related to The Food-Water-Energy Nexus



Agtips: Commercial Viability

29 January 2020

This edition’s agtips will cover the commercial viability section of your submission. While the technology section describes the technological maturity of your product and the sustainability section explains how your idea makes optimal use of natural resources, the commercial viability section demonstrates that your proposition has the potential to become a commercially successful business in the UAE. Business plans come in many forms, but for The FoodTech Challenge, we recommend you include these 7 points: Target Customers Who are your target customers? Target customers can be segmented by age, location, background, income, and lifestyle. Defined customer segments translate to defined sales and marketing strategies, which achieve stronger commercial results. Read more here. Opportunity Sizing What is the market opportunity and growth potential? Understanding the market dynamics for your product or service, relative to your competitors, is crucial to forecast how your business will sustain its growth. Read more here. Competitor Analysis A strong competitor analysis establishes what makes your product or service unique in order to attract the market. There are various frameworks to evaluate competitors; check out this article from Entrepeneur Middle East to learn more. Value Proposition/Competitor Edge The value proposition of your business drives your competitive edge. It defines the unique value that your product delivers to the customer, compared to what the market offers. A strong value proposition makes your product or service an irresistible idea to invest in. Cost As the saying goes, “you have to spend money to make money”. It is important that your business model takes into consideration the required fixed and variable costs to set up and maintain operations. The business model ideally forecasts when revenue will begin to recuperate the initial costs and begin generating profits (i.e., the breakeven point). Funding  Each winning team is eligible to win up to $250,000 in prizes – how do you plan to use it? What are the key areas where you will invest in your product or service (e.g., R&D, new hires, capital expenses)? Describe how funding from The FoodTech Challenge will be used to grow your product or service over a defined period (e.g., 12-18 months). Throughout that defined period, what major milestones do you think you will reach with the funding? Revenue How do you make money? A robust revenue model is the foundation for a sustainable business. Here are 10 common revenue models for startup companies to get you to start thinking, but there are unique business models out there as well that have proven success in the market. Get Inspired! There are many resources out there to help you think about how to structure your commercial viability section. We recommend you to take this 8-point test from Investopedia to determine whether your business model is viable. Once you have all the business plan components together, read this article from Forbes about the important do’s and don’ts for investor pitch decks to make sure that your business case is in the best shape possible.