UAE, Kuwait have highest food security levels in region

'As relatively small and wealthy countries, nearly all affordability indicators were strengths for both countries,' a report from the 2014 Global Food Security Index said.

ABU DHABI // The UAE and Kuwait enjoy the highest levels of food security in the region, says a new report.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Food Security Index for this year included both countries for the first time.

The report ranks the UAE and Kuwait at positions 30 and 28 in the world respectively, and at third and second places respectively in the region.

“Kuwait and the UAE enter the index with strong scores of 72.2 and 70.9 respectively,” said the report. “Their high scores were driven by stellar performances in affordability, where both countries scored above 90.

“As relatively small and wealthy countries, nearly all affordability indicators were strengths for both countries.”

The inclusion of the UAE and Kuwait in the report highlights the issue of food security in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) and their importance to the global energy economy.

“Both countries are important energy producers,” said the report. “Given their moderately strong performances in the index, they provide an additional perspective into how Mena countries may be able to improve their food security.”

The rankings of the UAE and Kuwait were not surprising, said Nicholas Lodge, a managing partner at Clarity, an agriculture consultancy in Abu Dhabi.

“You see excellent logistics infrastructure and the UAE is in many ways a hub for the entire GCC for foodstuffs,” he said.

“Food security in the GCC is about supply more than price, broadly speaking, as the region is relatively well-off compared with many other countries.”

But the UAE scored only moderately for food availability at 51st place. “Poor performance in corruption and political stability risk hindered food security, as it did throughout the region,” said the report.

“Its score was also diminished by high volatility of agricultural production, which occurred alongside low production, and low urban absorption capacity. Low public expenditure on agricultural research and development was a weakness.”

The EIU’s Middle East analyst said these weaknesses, common throughout the GCC, were a result of limited agricultural sectors and arid climate.

The GCC is highly dependent on food imports, with up to 90 per cent sourced from abroad.

“It will remain so, given the lack of water, and therefore arable land, and its growing population and changing dietary habits,” said Mr Lodge.

He added that food-security strategies being developed and carried out were positive. They included investments in integrated supply chain, trade with foreign food producers, as well as increased strategic reserves and efforts to reduce food wastage.

Mr Lodge said greater use of technology, and research and development, would help achieve a sustainable food-security model.

However, water was the UAE’s Achilles’ heel, said Jeffrey Culpepper, the chairman of Agrisecura in Dubai.

“They are falling behind in desalination plant construction for human consumption for a rapidly expanding population,” he said.

He noted that the UAE was prioritising population growth ahead of agricultural expansion.

But “water is a very expensive product to manufacture and the country’s gas supply is decreasing, making new desalination plants more difficult to build,” said Mr Culpepper.

Although a barrel of oil was cheaper and easier to produce than water, “we can’t drink oil”, he said. “So domestic agriculture is a politically nice idea, but it is not realistic from a cost-and-value proposition due to the water shortage,” he said.

The UAE needed to broaden its food imports by making additional investments in food-producing countries in geographically diverse areas, he added.

“That way, if there is a supply disruption to one source, another can fill the void,” he said.

“They should focus on stockpiling white protein such as chicken and fish, rice, edible oils, wheat flour and dairy powder in Fujairah to avoid shipping disruption via the Straits of Hormuz.

Mr Culpepper said these food items were essential to foreign labourers who had no choice but to buy in the local market.

“Nationals and wealthy expats can always pay inflated prices due to shortages or leave town, essential workers cannot,” he said.

The GCC would never be self-sufficient in food, so trade and a global approach to sourcing food was necessary, he said.

GCC countries, he said, had the ability to export capital and help drive progress in global food production, said Mr Culpepper.