Measured strategy for food security

In light of the E.coli outbreak in Europe, authorities in the Gulf would do well to re-evaluate long-term plans for food security.

First, it was Spanish cucumbers. Then bean sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany were blamed. Now we seem to be back to square one with the source of Europe's E.coli outbreak again a mystery.

There is no doubt that the spate of food-related illnesses has been a major concern. The bill for Europe's agricultural industry could eventually tally €500 million (Dh2.7 billion) and, worst of all, at least 24 deaths have been linked to the bacteria.

Any government complacency in the face of that threat would be condemnable. But at least some of the monetary damage has been self-inflicted. In the first week of the outbreak, the diplomatic row between Germany and Spain claimed as much attention as the investigation, with each side blaming the other in furiously escalating rhetoric. Thousands of tonnes of produce were ditched as a precaution.

We hope that the severity of this outbreak is on the wane regardless of whether the source of the contagion is discovered. There will, however, be other crises - we might as well learn from this one.

In some cases, a comprehensive testing regimen might be necessary, which could avert the massive cull that Germany and Spain have conducted. The UAE has planned to test all produce imports from the EU, although that might be made less onerous with systematic spot testing. Technological solutions - perhaps even exposing produce to mild doses of radiation, as recommended by some US agricultural experts - should be considered if they are deemed safe.

In the Gulf, there are particular concerns because so much food is imported. As The National reported yesterday, no cases of E.coli infections have been detected in the UAE, but in light of Europe's problems (both agricultural and political) authorities should re-evaluate long-term plans for food security. At a recent conference in Beirut, experts said that the EU's experience could lead to a growing role for the Middle East as a food exporter. Of course, in the UAE the principal challenge is water.

Domestic agricultural production will only be one part of the region's food-security strategy, and not the dominant one. The balance among imports, overseas investments in arable land and domestic agriculture deserves fine tuning. That way we won't be caught teetering as the Europeans recently have been.

Published: June 9, 2011 04:00 AM