UAE Food Security Challenges

15 October 2019

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

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