UAE 'completely overhauled' food strategy during pandemic, says minister

Beset by war, locusts, a pandemic and a population boom, the region has faced a ‘lost decade’ in food security, say UN officials

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The Covid-19 pandemic forced the UAE to assess its food supply chain after suffering some initial disruption, a Cabinet minister has said.

Mariam Al Mheiri, the Minister of State for Food Security, said the country had to act quickly to ensure people had access to vital products at the start of the outbreak.

Speaking at an online meeting of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for Western Asia and North Africa on Monday, Ms Al Mheiri said the government's policy in supporting agri-tech companies to increase local food supply helped.

“As a country, the UAE imports over 90 per cent of its food,” she said.

“We experienced several supply chain disruptions in the midst of the pandemic with certain food products not making their way into the country.

A complete overhaul needed to be done

“Our crisis management plan, which was part of the food security strategy, was put to the test as we acted and adapted quickly ... to ensure our people had access to safe, nutritious and affordable food at all times. We really benefitted from having a clear governance model in the country in the food security sector.”

Governments can promote food security by supporting start-ups and small or medium sized businesses that can accelerate the shift from traditional agriculture to sustainable practices like urban farming, said Ms Al Mheiri.

The first substantive activity by the food security office, was to remove barriers that agri-tech companies face so they would set up local businesses and increase domestic food production, she said.

“A complete overhaul needs to be done,” she said.

“So we urge all governments to really look into their regulations to try to enhance the growth of more sustainable domestic production.”

Civil organisations like food banks also play a role in food security by, for example, reducing food waste or encouraging thoughtful consumption.

The FAO meeting laid bare the challenges of food security in the middle of the pandemic, which is expected to add five to seven million hungry people to the region this year.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - May 03, 2020: HE Mariam Mohamed Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi, UAE Minister of State for Food Security (R), delivers a lecture titled “ Nourishing the nation: Food Security in the UAE ”. The lecture was broadcast on Al Emarat Channel as part of the Ramadan lecture series of Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed. 

( Mohamed Al Hammadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs )
Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of State for Food Security. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs

Recovery is expected to be slower and less complete than in other regions, FAO officials warned.

“We believe that Covid-19 has sounded an alarm bell that has demonstrated the limitations of our current food systems and the response requires both immediate action and also longer term action to build back and ensure we have more resilient food systems,” said Beth Bechdol, FAO’s deputy director general.

Agricultural ministers gathered for the virtual meeting to discuss a proposed response plan to Covid-19 food security issues.

Prior to the pandemic, the body’s regional priorities already included rural investment, the development of healthy food systems, water scarcity and pest control.

The UN body said population growth and urbanisation widened the gap between regional consumption and production, a problem amplified by natural hazards, conflicts and prolonged crises. Additionally, small scale agriculture has been overlooked by regional policymakers, despite its potential to improve the lives of thousands of families in rural areas.

The region has seen a "lost decade" for food security with systemic risks, said Ms Bechdol.

Already racked by water scarcity and desertification, it will be severely affected by climate change.

“At the beginning of this season, we had to face climatic events such as floods and landslides, particularly in arable lands and farming lands where floods took place and we are currently working hand in hand with FAO in order to resolve the issue and respond to needs,” said a speaker from Sudan.

“One of the other problems we are facing is desert locusts. We are counting on friends to help resolve our problems.”

The region’s reliance on imports makes it particularly vulnerable to changes in food prices, a problem raised by Yemeni and Lebanese representatives.

“As the situation may worsen, we will be facing a true crisis in the country,” said Lebanon’s Minister of Agriculture, Abbas Murtada.

Ms Al Mheiri said the UAE was committed to supporting the FAO response plan and neighbouring countries.

“We are ready to support and stand by our brothers and sisters in the region,” she said.