Food 'as vital an issue as oil', says Geldof

The National | 29 April 2011

Sir Bob Geldof attends the Gulf food forum. (Photo: Lee Hoagland/ The National)

by Caline Malek

ABU DHABI // The UAE must take the lead in the debate on food security, the former pop star turned development campaigner Sir Bob Geldof says.

Governments and companies alike need to be more open about their overseas investments in farmland, so that full use can be made of it, he told the Gulf Intelligence Food Security Forum.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, concern is rising about how to produce enough food.

In recent years Gulf countries, including the UAE, have been buying land in developing countries to cultivate food crops for their own populations.

However, Sir Bob said that only a small portion of the land bought so far was actually being used to grow food.

"It's criminal that available land that can be properly irrigated and cultivated in a modern sense, where new techniques are tried and taught to local farmers, is not yet put into production," he said.

He called for greater transparency from the region, citing the example of mining industries, for which governments and companies follow a "publish what you pay" policy.

"The UAE must take a leadership role because despite what people think, food is absolutely as vital an issue to the developing and developed world as oil," said Sir Bob, who heads the Band Aid Charitable Trust, an association that helps relieve poverty in Ethiopia.

Nicholas Lodge, the managing partner of Clarity, an Abu Dhabi-based agriculture consultancy, said greater transparency was "definitely a good idea. Transparency shouldn't just be done on a food security basis, and the UAE and more forward-thinking countries in the Arab world are acknowledging and taking active steps towards that," he said.

He said it would be easy, practical and feasible for independent representatives to be installed on company boards and international standards of accounting and reporting to be adopted.

"Necessity is one thing, but there is definitely a genuine desire for greater transparency and I believe we will see more of it in the future."

Saad Benani, managing director of Credit Suisse in Dubai, said new farming technology and new means of financing would help to ensure a secure food supply. Investing in land was vital, he said.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said the UAE needed to understand that addressing food insecurity involved humanitarian relief efforts as well as a strategic approach to development.

It was "staggering" that the number of people suffering from chronic hunger had passed a billion last year, he said.

For the UAE, the biggest challenge is finding a way to guarantee its food supply by investing in land elsewhere.

"At the moment, that's politically a dangerous strategy, but I don't see what other options they have," Sir Bob said. "There is a fundamental food problem in this part of the world."

Water is in short supply, too - 70 per cent of the world's water resources are utilised by agriculture.

"We're not producing enough food and we're running out of land and water," Sir Bob said. "We could possibly replace the land but not the water, and if we do more agriculture more water will be absorbed, and that becomes a problem in itself."

He said modern methods were available to reduce water use, and more efficient scientific techniques for farming were needed in places such as Africa, where 60 per cent of the land was arid.

Sean Evers, the managing partner of the communications firm Gulf Intelligence, said that global prices of commodities such as wheat and corn had tripled in recent years.

Last February, the UN food price index, which measures commodities including meat, dairy, cereals, sugar, and oils and fats, reached an 11-year high.

Since 2000, the index has risen from 90 to 237, and it is expected to increase five times or more in the next three years.

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