Imports raise food security flag in UAE
It is a box of chicken nuggets; enough for a delicious family meal once removed from the freezer and placed in a pan of hot cooking oil for the recommended four minutes.
The box reassures Muslim customers that its contents are "the real halal". In Arabic and English, it lists the expiration date, nutritional facts (fibre 0.1 per 100 gm, calories from fat 29.2 per 100g) and the ingredients: 14 in all.
And there is one more piece of information that might reassure those concerned about food miles and the effect on the environment or looking for a local stamp of quality. Produced and packaged by Al Islami, United Arab Emirates.
But there is more to the nuggets than meets the eye. The chicken is from Brazil, the bread crumbs from the United Kingdom and the wheat imported from Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Paraguay. The vegetable fat is processed in the UAE, but made from canola seeds imported from Canada.
Spain supplies the emulsifiers, Germany the salt and stabilisers, while the dextrin, which enhances crispness, is Chinese. The spices are from India, of course, as are the flavour enhancer and textured vegetable protein.
Graphic: The full origins of your chicken nuggets
Fourteen ingredients and 11 countries. Here in a simple box of chicken nuggets is the country's food supply in all its complexity - a global web of suppliers, producers and farmers who fill the shelves of supermarkets and corner shops in a desert land that once survived on little more than dates, fish and camels' milk.
If the chicken nuggets show that even home-produced foods often depend heavily on imported ingredients, a patch of scrubland off the road to Al Ain illustrates the challenges involved in creating a truly local food industry.
Beyond a handful of camel herders keeping watch outside their tents and a sleepy souq is the Marmum Dairy Farm and a frenzy of activity running with clockwork precision and accuracy.
At exactly 4.35am, 80 cows are hooked up to mechanical milkers. Within five minutes, the Holstein Friesians, cooled by gentle breezes from an air-conditioning system, will have produced 16 litres each and been swiftly moved on for the next set of cattle.
Within four hours, 1,500 cows have been milked. By the end of the day, 20,000 litres of milk will be bottled and on their way to supermarkets around the UAE.
At a time when the issue of food security, essentially the need to provide a steady, reliable source of nourishment at an affordable price, is at the forefront of the national debate, Marmum is an example of self-sufficiency, demonstrating how locally sourced produce can be efficiently manufactured without having to travel far from the factory floor to the table.
Its milk, juices and yogurts are sold within the UAE and because of their short shelf life, reach their destination within a day of production. This year the firm is investing Dh10 milllion in expansion plans and hopes to branch out into other products, such as butter and cheese.
Yet the dairy also illustrates a problem here: that the produce might be local but the cattle are shipped from Australia and the grass to feed them comes from North America, Spain or Argentina. And when the milk is finally bottled, its manufacturers have another obstacle to contend with: foreign competition. The price of milk in the UAE is fixed and because lower fuel costs in Saudi Arabia mean Saudi dairy farmers pay only a dirham to produce one litre of milk - and UAE farms pay more than twice as much - the local farmers are struggling to match the profit margins the foreigners are making.
If local companies struggle to make a profit, it risks adding to the country's heavy reliance on imports. Including finished products and fresh produce, more than 90 per cent of food in the UAE has been imported, a figure amounting to a hefty Dh34 billion a year.
Of that, produce worth more than Dh12 billion is either relabelled, sold on or manufactured from raw ingredients and re-exported across the GCC and the wider region, leaving the bulk to feed a rapidly growing population on home turf.
The UAE's vulnerability to globally fluctuating prices was exposed by the food crisis of 2008, when sharply rising fuel costs and failing crops in grain-producing nations caused prices of basic commodities, like flour and rice, to escalate. With prices of these staples rising by nearly 60 per cent, the government stepped in to introduce fixed prices.
The cost of basics did eventually settle down, but in February this year they hit a 20-year high because of drought in exporting countries and a temporary ban on wheat exports from Russia, one of the world's biggest producers of grain, after a series of devastating wildfires at the end of last year.
Figures from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation show prices eventually peaked and were steady last month. But the issue has not gone away. One thing the industry's key players are agreed on is the need for a long-term strategy to protect the security of the nation's food supply.
What they are divided on is what form it should take: whether to invest in agriculture at home or abroad, or to prepare for a worst-case scenario by stockpiling essentials.
For a country whose arid climate and limited freshwater supplies meant that home-grown produce was until relatively recently limited largely to dates, dairy, some poultry and fish, talk of becoming more self-sufficient is still a fresh topic.
"Food security is one of the major issues facing the Middle East today," says Hamad Buamim, director general of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "With limitations due to climate and the region's rapidly rising population, the need to guarantee a stable and constant supply of food is a top priority for all countries.
"The global community sees this as a business opportunity. Imports grew by more than 12 per cent in 2010. Even though the last two years have been challenging, the food and beverages industry has continued growing."
The numbers are mind-boggling: more than Dh1 billion in olive oil, nuts and frozen meat from Spain were imported to the UAE last year; Dh54 million in Chilean apples; more than Dh1 billion in French foie gras, oysters, caviar and mineral water.
In Dubai alone, food imports rose by 23.1 per cent last year to 5.2 million tonnes, according to Dubai Municipality. Across the GCC, food worth Dh114 billion was shipped or flown in, with Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest consumer absorbing Dh62 billion of imports.
Given the size of the UAE's carbon footprint, those imports are a concern. Bringing in produce from abroad notches up millions of air miles and carbon emissions and, just as importantly, relying on so much foreign food leaves the UAE vulnerable to shortages or sudden price rises. One solution is the purchase of vast tracts of land in countries not as far away as Chile and Spain, such as Sudan, where the UAE owns 283,000 hectares of agricultural land for growing fresh produce.
Other GCC nations, including Saudi Arabia, have invested in a further 200,000 hectares to ensure a safe stock of fresh produce from fertile land.
Land in Africa has been cheap but is not the ideal solution. Many such projects have shown limited returns: barely one in five result in actual farming, according to a World Bank report. The attention of the Gulf states has instead shifted to Australia, Eastern Europe, Brazil and Turkey, where land might be more expensive but an infrastructure with roads and ports already exists.
"We are looking at strategic reserves," Mr Buamim says. "In the last few months, for example, the price of rice from Australia shot up because of the floods there. The advantage we have here is that we have relationships with different parts of the world, so if one crop fails, we can go to another market."
The Government has been devising a plan to set up reserves in case of emergencies and unstable commodity prices. The Ministry of Economy says it plans to have stocks of 14 essential foodstuffs.
Although ministers have not revealed exactly how much will be held in the food bank, it is something Essa al Ghurair, the chairman of Al Ghurair Foods, one of the oldest food-manufacturing companies in the UAE, says he has been doing all along.
"We have been managing all these years and I think we will manage for another 30," he says. "We have 300,000 tonnes of grain in storage at any one time. It is constantly turning over, but usually we have two months' supply of corn, canola, wheat, barley and yellow peas."
But is enough being done to coordinate a national strategy? Sir Bob Geldof, the singer and environmentalist, says not. At the Gulf Intelliegence Food Security Forum in Abu Dhabi this year, he called on the UAE to lead the debate, saying it was "criminal" that only a small portion of the land bought overseas was being used to grow food: "Food is as vital an issue to the developing and developed world as oil."
One route being explored is contract farming deals, by which investors, rather than buy land, pair up with farms, pump in resources and technology and reap crops at a set price, creating jobs on the ground and agreeing to sell a percentage of the food locally.
Saudi Arabia has already made forays in that area, offering grants to companies investing in farms overseas. The UAE will be watching with interest. Only last November, the Minister of Economy, Sultan al Mansouri, wrote to the Federal National Council emphasising the need for more investments in agricultural projects abroad in countries with low production costs.
Back on home turf, there has been a noticeable drive by the government and individuals to encourage local producers.
A number of local ventures, particularly organic, have sprung up, reflecting global trends toward healthier eating.
In the cooler months, Souq al Bahar in downtown Dubai holds a weekly farmers' market with tables groaning under the weight of locally grown tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines, and this month, Masdar started hosting the first in a series of monthly markets offering fresh fare.
And even a stroll down the aisles at some local supermarkets show increasing prominence given to home grown food. These days, you are just as likely to find UAE lettuce and cucumbers as pricey imports from the greenhouses of Holland; strawberries from the Emirates sit alongside those air freighted from the United States and there is an increasing amount of choice in whether you opt for UAE aubergines or those from India.
Supermarket shelves heaving with an abundance of colourful, ripe fruit and vegetables belie the effort that has gone into producing them. The FAO estimates that 70 per cent of the world's water resources are used in agriculture. Here in the UAE, most of the water is expensively-produced in desalination plants, so not practical for use on a wide scale. Another issue facing local farmers battling to get a decent price for their crops in an oversupplied market, is that their produce is often deemed inferior to its imported, European competition.
So funding is being pumped into ways to irrigate crops without wastage.
François Sporrer, the trade commissioner at the French consulate in Dubai, says French companies are working with the UAE to develop its agriculture, with extensive co-operation at the research and development level.
"We are also looking at tissue culture. Instead of waiting for the date palm to develop fruit, are there ways of speeding up the process, for example," he asks. "We have a pilot programme looking into the reconstruction of soil, techniques to make arable land use less water and improving the productivity of palm trees."
The UAE, he says, could improve its self-sufficiency, technology and the way it uses water. He cited water wastage as a concern. Reduce that wastage and there is more water available - and higher profits. "We are not pretending to transform the desert," he said, "but we can improve production margins."
UN food experts agree that improving the productivity of the date palm industry, which provides an income for two-thirds of desert dwellers, would strengthen food output and raise income levels in the poorest areas of the country.
So would a fund worth Dh6.6 billion set aside this year by the International Finance Corporation to boost regional agricultural projects.
But not everyone is happy. Dairy producers facing ever-increasing fuel costs have been feeling the pinch and formed a co-operative to campaign for government subsidies.
One manufacturer, who does not want to be named, says: "When a country like Saudi Arabia, with the same climactic conditions, has the world's two largest dairy farms - Al Marai and Al Safi - and the No 1 brand across the GCC, why can't we? They have the land, the money and the infrastructure. Businesses in Saudi get soft loans while I have to apply for a normal commercial loan."
Because the state does not subsidise dairy or crop farmers, the manufacturer pays "the same water and electricity rate per unit as everyone else and the same immigration and labour fees, despite visa fees and the cost of my operation going up. … I have to account for all those commodity prices but get no help.
"We are not even allowed to put up prices by a dirham. We have been asking for help but get nowhere."
The manufacturer predicts a day when, without state support, people will shutter their businesses. "Everyone is talking about food security, but the government needs to understand that comes from offering support."
Al Ghurair, who sells about two-thirds of produce locally and exports the rest, does not agree: "We are in an open market so I don't see the point of subsidies. But equally, I don't agree with fixed prices. There is no duty on flour or milk coming from outside the UAE, so we should let the market forces play out."
Investment in a harsh climate will only ever yield a limited number of raw ingredients. What the UAE is hoping to do is position itself as a key trading hub.
As the world's third largest re-exporter, goods worth more than Dh12 billion are repackaged or processed and sent on to other destinations.
The country's prime position as a gateway between East and West has enabled a number of manufacturing and processing plants to spring up in the desert in an industry that saw 22 per cent growth last year.
From Jenan oil made in Jebel Ali from seed imported from Canada, to oats milled at the new Al Ghurair factory in Dubai, to Tiffany biscuits processed in Sharjah, the emphasis in recent years has been on luring some of the trade passing through one of the busiest hubs in the world to set up camp here.
Peter Gopfrich, chief executive of the German Emirati Joint Council for Industry and Commerce, says: "This is a hub for trading with the surrounding markets."
Mark Napier, director of exhibitions and events at Dubai World Trade Centre, which hosts Gulfood, says: "There is potential here for everyone, from those who put food on our plate to those who import, distribute, sell it wholesale or cook it.
"The food processing industry here increased by 300 per cent over the last two years. The infrastructure here is second to none and with population growth, there is huge potential to meet demand."
At the Millennium Hotel in Abu Dhabi, staff are already putting that theory into practice with a policy of sourcing as much produce locally as possible. The menu even includes Italian-style mozzarella made in Sharjah from milk from Al Ain and Ras al Khaimah.
Mr Buamim acknowledges: "I cannot see a situation where we could be self-sufficient as there are too many environmental and climactic challenges - but there are more methods and ways of securing food."
Certainly the seeds to strengthen the UAE's foothold in markets both at home and abroad have been sown.
As James Edwards, looking for a Middle Eastern buyer for his organic ginger cordial at Gulfood, said: "You can't start picking fruit off the tree before it's grown."
Published: May 21, 2011 04:00 AM