Interview: Rashed Mohamed Al Shariqi

In what way has the government supported the agriculture and food processing industries?

RAHED MOHAMED AL SHARIQI: The government has demonstrated considerable support for these industries by establishing a strong regulatory framework and promoting an investment-friendly business environment. First and foremost, the UAE boasts some of the world’s finest transport and shipping infrastructure thanks to recently completed projects such as Khalifa Port and the surrounding Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, where a food cluster will soon be established. From a financial perspective, the memorandum of understanding signed between the government and the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development is facilitating the financing of agriculture projects in the UAE. In 2012 the Khalifa Fund financed over 25 projects, most of them using sophisticated technology to enhance productivity and achieve ambitious energy-efficiency targets.

Besides its excellent infrastructure and competitive financing environment, the UAE is well integrated into the global economy, as an active member of the WTO and a founding member of the GCC. All of these factors have encouraged increased investment in agriculture projects to effectively guarantee food security as well as promote ambitious, standardised food safety regulations. In addition, it has elevated Abu Dhabi’s positioning in terms of its ability to service the greater region. With many countries in the GCC and the Middle East reliant on food importation, there is an opportunity for the emirate to act as a manufacturing and distribution hub to meet the growing regional demand for basic commodities and, more relevantly, value-added manufactured food-related products.

What has been done to reduce the risks associated with food distribution?

AL SHARIQI: For the past few years, we have implemented a monitoring and classification system, whereby according to the origin and nature of the product we decide whether it should go through inspection. For example, producers classed in the red category must go through a very strict inspection process to check whether they comply with appropriate health and safety standards. On the other hands, products that are classified in the yellow or green category will go through more routine controls, or even no controls at all when we are convinced there are absolutely no risks.

Furthermore, we have a system that allows us to track food commodities from production to consumption. This is what we call the “from farm to fork” concept. The Labs Information Management Systems (LIMS) helps us to build a comprehensive database, where we collect data on food safety standards and sanitation problems throughout the world. As soon as we receive a new piece of information, we start investigating in order to carefully assess what risks Abu Dhabi may potentially be faced with, and what the most appropriate response should be. As a result, LIMS is helping us to implement the highest food safety standards and comply with best international practices. The number of global incidents of food-related illnesses highlights the importance of implementing such controls.

How have measures to ensure the safe import of agricultural products affected food security?

AL SHARIQI: Most of the food consumed in the emirate is imported, and while we do not control food safety measures implemented abroad, we do have information about cultivation techniques, soil fertility, climate, use of chemicals and safety standards. This database is not only important for us to monitor compliance with food safety regulations, but may also prove invaluable to UAE agricultural firms looking to invest around the world. In turn, those companies are more likely to make the right investment decisions, establish successful activities abroad and export their products back to the UAE, thus securing the availability of food in the country. In that sense, our role in guaranteeing food security is indirect as providers of information and knowledge to the relevant bodies and companies.