GCC urged to reduce its reliance on food imports

The National | 16 November 2009

Zoi Constantine

ABU DHABI // As the issue of global food security was being discussed yesterday in Rome by world leaders, a senior UN official here highlighted the need for GCC countries to address their dependence on food imports.

Kayan Jaff, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) office in Abu Dhabi, said yesterday that improving agricultural research and practices and investing in agribusiness were vital for countries such as the UAE.

“This will relieve the high dependency on imports, which naturally have also been impacted by recent price and supply shocks,” he said.

Mr Jaff made his comments in conjunction with the opening of the three-day World Summit on Food Security, held at the FAO’s Rome headquarters and financed by Saudi Arabia.

Dr Rashid bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water, led the UAE’s delegation to the event, where discussions focused on security and ending global hunger.

According to the UN, in the past two years rising food prices and the economic crisis have resulted in an additional 150 million people going hungry, taking the total to more than 1 billion worldwide.

Dozens of world leaders were in Rome, including Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, all of whom addressed the summit’s opening session. Pope Benedict XVI was also present and said that widespread hunger in poor countries should not be tolerated. According to the FAO, every six seconds a child dies of hunger-related illnesses.

To stress the urgent need to end worldwide hunger, both Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the FAO, and Mr Ban went on a 24-hour hunger strike ahead of the summit.

Mr Jaff, who is responsible for FAO activities in the GCC states and Yemen, described the hunger strike as a “dramatic initiative”.

“The director-general wanted to demonstrate how serious and chronic the issue is,” he said. “World leaders have to take responsibility for this problem and come up with commitments … to eradicate hunger.”

According to WAM, the state news agency, Dr bin Fahad recently said that access to food was among the “key human rights”.

The UAE relies heavily on food imports, with some estimates placing the figure as high as 85 per cent. Given that GCC states import a large proportion of their food, food security is particularly important to “policymakers at the local and federal level”, Mr Jaff said.

However, according to WAM, Dr bin Fahad said that the UAE now produces up to 95 per cent of dates, 79 per cent of fish and 25 per cent of vegetables in the country.

The FAO is stepping up its presence in the region, with a team of experts set to join the Abu Dhabi office from the beginning of 2010, to provide advice to authorities on issues including food security and safety, agricultural policy and investments.

In recent years Gulf countries, including the UAE, have invested in agribusiness, buying up plots of land in more arable countries. When it comes to the acquisition of farmland in foreign countries, the FAO can also act as an “honest broker”, Mr Jaff said.

The fact that the UAE hosts the FAO’s sub-regional office is testament to the Government’s commitment to “improving food security in the Gulf”, he added.

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