Coronavirus: UAE steps up local production and trade partnerships amid outbreak

Air cargo has been ramped up to compensate for global shipping restrictions while local food production has tripled

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 2, 2020.  Visit to a UAE farm, Emirates Bio Farm at Al Ain to learn about how they are dealing with coronavirus outbreak.  Workers arrange the newly hand picked vegetables from the farm fields.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Dan Sanderson

New trade partnerships and a greater focus on local farming are just some of the measures being taken by the UAE to avoid a food security crisis amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

The pandemic has affected shipping and production worldwide as countries restricted movement and economic activity to limit the spread of the virus.

Countries such as the UAE, where farming is limited, are vulnerable to trade quotas or international export restrictions, but local officials say the Emirates are well placed to cope.

Air cargo has been ramped up to compensate for global shipping restrictions while local food production has tripled.

"Despite the global challenges created by the outbreak of Covid-19, we are fully prepared and have sufficient strategic food reserves to serve the needs of the community," Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai Executive Council, said last week.

Covid-19 has placed unprecedented pressure on the global supply chain bringing staple foods into the country.

We are fully prepared and have sufficient strategic food reserves to serve the needs of the community

Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have imposed export restrictions on wheat until June, while Vietnam briefly restricted its booming rice trade.

The UAE relies heavily on wheat and eggs from Ukraine, where farmers are concerned an export ban could have a lasting effect on business.

“In this world that is so fragile, during the Covid-19 crisis, the farming industry is facing challenges as nations look to stock up on their supplies,” said Galina Kovtok, chief operating officer of Ukrlandfarming, a company farming maize, wheat and sunflowers in Ukraine.

“There are reports of a potential rise in global hunger as a result of this pandemic.

“If you live in a country where most of your food is imported there is likely to be some level of concern, even if the current situation is good.”

Kazakhstan recently reversed its export ban on wheat flour, but export quotas remain.

For the past year, the UAE has been the main country-importer of Ukrainian flour. In that time, it purchased 52,000 tonnes for 2019-20 season.

Not only is it the staple ingredient of bread, but also used widely in biscuits, cakes, pies, soups and a range of processed foods.

Farmers in Ukraine have reassured the UAE will remain a key market for grain and wheat despite widespread export restrictions. Courtesy: UkrLandFarming 

Farmers in key producing nations have warned the cycle of sowing and harvesting could be severely affected by coronavirus if they contract the virus and are unable to work fields.

“From our perspective, as a major grain growing nation, we will do our best to advocate our government to refrain from imposing any unwarranted trade restrictions,” said Ms Kovtok, whose company employs 27,000 agricultural workers in Ukraine.

“Logistical disruption is a potential concern.

“We are expecting another bumper crop all over the world, but if shipping is significantly limited then it could become an issue.”

The shipping industry has also been badly hit by coronavirus.

Unless crews on board anchored ships waiting to come in to port can be replaced, as they near the end of their contacts, trade and global supply chains could grind to a halt.

The International Maritime Organisation has warned its 174 member states that if the 150,000 seafarers estimated to be working beyond their contracts are not relieved of their duties they will be in breach of maritime regulations.

Overall, the UAE has bolstered its reserves in preparation of any future restrictions.

The Dubai Food Security Committee said the emirate has a year’s worth of essential food supplies, including enough wheat and rice to last eight months.

In a recent briefing, Jamal Al Hay, executive vice president at Dubai Airports, said 110 cargo flights from 12 airlines were running daily to counter restrictions on shipping enforced by coronavirus.

Locally, almost 600 factories have stepped up production since the coronavirus took hold.

Officials said production lines were capable of tripling capacity to about 16 million tonnes of essential foods a year, if required.

The Emirates Food Security Council has also announced measures to guard against the rise of food nationalism by increasing production of essential foods by 15 per cent by 2021.

Essential items at the core of production include dairy products, cooking oil, dates, fresh poultry, fish and seafood.

Other measures include an emergency mechanism launched by the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment andDevelopment to address the threat of regional food shortages.

It will provide transparency among Arab nations on the availability of essential commodities.

“Most Arab countries import a major part of their basic food needs from abroad,” said Mohammed Al Mazrooei, the authority’s president.

“We are working on a pioneering investment and technical model to support activities related to agricultural product trading in the region.

“This will promote solidarity amid global fear of food shortages in the markets due to the disturbances in international supply chains as a result of coronavirus.”