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Food Security and Climate Change: the UAE Experience Thani Al Zeyoudi
The Arab world faces critical challenges in ensuring its food security. Our region is already the world’s largest net importer of essentials such as cereals and sugar, low water supplies in the region mean that expanding agricultural production is difficult, and population growth means that more people must be fed each year. In many ways, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) presents an exemplary case of this challenge. The country has low potential for agricultural production, and can rely on rainfall for less than one percent of its water needs. That means that its food security depends on international markets. For the UAE, food security is fundamentally a foreign policy issue.
The UAE has placed a wide range of policies and measures in recent years to ensure stable, affordable, and long-term food supplies, ranging from increasing domestic agricultural production to acquisition of foreign agricultural land. At the same time, climate change is affecting global food production, and it is projected to worsen in the coming decades. The UAE therefore needs to address these challenges through a balanced, strategic approach and active participation in relevant international negotiations.
Limits of Domestic Production
Currently, the UAE imports around 90 percent of its food products. This is mainly due to the fact that the UAE is located in a highly arid environment that does not favor agricultural production. The lack of surface freshwater resources (the average annual rainfall is less than 100 millimeters), high temperatures in the summer months and the limited availability of land suitable for agriculture limits domestic agricultural production to less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product. Furthermore, ground water, which is the main source of water used for agriculture, is projected to be depleted in the mid-21stcentury with the current abstraction rate. Significantly increasing other sources of water in agriculture such as desalinated water is not an economically and environmentally viable option. The UAE has taken many important steps to improve domestic agricultural production through better crop selection (e.g., phasing out of water-intensive Rhodes grass for animal feed), increasing water efficiency (e.g., promoting drip irrigation) and introducing new technologies (e.g., introduction of hydroponics). Entities such as Masdar are exploring new options such as renewable energy for desalination to improve economic and environmental footprints associated with the desalination processes. While such efforts are helpful, domestic agricultural production cannot increase to the level of self-sufficiency. The UAE will continue to be heavily reliant on food imports in the foreseeable future, and it needs to take strategic measures to mitigate associated risks.
Global Food Supply and the Impacts of Climate Change
The UAE has a broad and fairly balanced supplier base across all geographic regions. The top five supplying countries account for approximately less than half of the total food import. India, for instance, is one of the major food suppliers for the UAE, and its share is roughly between 15 to 20 per cent of the total, varying from year to year. Land has been acquired or leased, including in countries such as Sudan, Morocco and Pakistan, to provide an assured supply to the UAE. Regardless of where food products are sourced, however, all of the regions will be affected by impacts of climate change, including decreased yields due to drought and flood increases as well as crop damage due to insect outbreaks. For example, a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that agricultural production in many of the African countries will be “severely compromised” and yields from rain-fed agriculture in some countries may be halved by 2020 (IPCC, 2007). Similarly, crop yields in Central and South Asia are projected to decrease by up to 30 percent by 2050 (IPCC, 2007). Some regions have already been affected, as seen by the repeated flooding in India and Pakistan in recent years. Some estimates indicate that climate change may account for as much as half of projected food price increases by 2050 for staples such as maize, rice and wheat (Nelson et al., 2010). Coupled with increasing food demand both domestically and internationally due to population growth, as well as increasing global demand for more resource-intensive food products (such as meat), the challenges of food security for the UAE will grow.
Key Factors for Addressing Food Security and Climate Change
There are a number of key factors in ensuring food security against challenges of climate change. First, all countries must make efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, especially in areas where agricultural production is projected to be affected. An international climate agreement, scheduled for negotiation by 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), must be effective and ambitious. Second, the UAE must invest strategically to build diversified and resilient food supplies, taking into consideration potential impacts of climate change and other factors. Third, the UAE will continue supporting an open, rules-based multilateral trading system, and support agricultural exporting developing countries in having equal access to markets and obtaining necessary technical assistance. Fourth, global goal setting is important in creating a common ground. Once agreed, the set of universal “Sustainable Development Goals” being developed by the United Nations should help countries to collectively address important issues such as food security and climate change in the coming decades.
The UAE has already done a lot in relation to the above mentioned points. The UAE is active in promoting a climate agreement and sustainable development goals under the United Nations. It plays a major role in clean technology development and deployment through leading actors such as MASDAR. It has taken a wide range of approaches on foreign agricultural investments and supported bilateral and multilateral trade discussions. However, more needs to be done in order for the UAE to safeguard its food security. A strategic national food security policy based on international agreements and investments is essential. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in close cooperation with both domestic and international partners, is ready to play a growing role in enhancing the country’s food security in the years ahead.
Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi is Director of Energy and Climate Change, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UAE.
Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, 2012. “Advancing Sustainable Groundwater Management in Abu Dhabi”, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi.
GRAIN, 2012. “Land grab deals – January 2012”, GRAIN.
IPCC, 2007.“Summary for Policymakers”, in: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of WorkingGroup II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani,J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 7-22.
Gerald C. Nelson, Mark W. Rosegrant, Amanda Palazzo, Ian Gray, Christina Ingersoll, Richard Robertson, SimlaTokgoz, Tingju Zhu, Timothy B. Sulser, Claudia Ringler, SiwaMsangi, and Liangzhi You, 2010. “Food Security, Farming, and Climate Change to 2050: Scenarios, Results, Policy Options”, Issues Brief 66, International Food Policy Research Institute.
United Arab Emirates, 2012. “3rd National Communications under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”, Ministry of Energy.
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