Abu Dhabi steps up agricultural research and food safety standards

 

The local authorities are continually looking at ways to improve domestic food production, efforts which can in turn support and work alongside the various strategies in place to ensure Abu Dhabi’s food security as well as that of the wider UAE. Despite a desert climate and significant barriers to largescale agricultural production, a strong focus has been placed in recent years on the management of key resources such as water, with an increased push into areas like greenhouses, hydroponics and the overall modernisation of the agriculture sector.

This comes at a time when Abu Dhabi’s population, and therefore its food requirements, continue to grow. The emirate’s population has almost doubled since 2005, to 2.91m as of today according to the “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2018”, released by Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD). Meanwhile, a 2017 report by consultancy Alpen Capital estimated that food consumption across the UAE as a whole would rise by an average of 4.4% a year between 2016 and 2021. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, just 11% of the UAE’s agricultural land was arable in 2016, which has contributed to 90% of the UAE’s food being imported.

While Abu Dhabi, and the UAE as a whole, has continued to push for food security, prices of locally grown products continue to be higher than equivalent imports due to the costs associated with their production. This is likely to remain a challenge and continues to affect the ability of commercial farms to survive without strong government backing.

Contribution

According to SCAD’s preliminary estimates for 2017, the emirate’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector was worth Dh6.22bn ($1.7bn) for the year, roughly 0.75% of the emirate’s GDP. This was a marginal rise on 2016, when the sector contributed 0.78% of GDP, or Dh5.93bn ($1.6bn). As economic activity as a whole rose by around 10% in 2017, the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector grew by 4.9%, after expanding by 4.1% in 2016, 3.3% in 2015 and 3.1% in 2014.

Fruits, Vegetables & Field Crops

The number of available agricultural areas and plant holdings in Abu Dhabi increased 38-fold between 1971 and 2017, according to data from SCAD, from 634 to 24,018, with the available arable land expanding from 22,377 dunums to 749,868 over that same period (a dunum is roughly 0.1 ha). Most of arable land is found in Al Ain, which has 452,503 dunums, followed by the regions of Al Dhafra and Abu Dhabi, with 207,686 and 89,679 dunums, respectively. At the same time, most of the farms in Al Ain are between 30 and 39 dunums in size.

A strong focus has been placed on the management of key resources such as water, with an increased push into areas like greenhouses and hydroponics The area cultivated with fruit trees in the emirate accounted for 36.3% of the total arable land available, followed at a distance by areas cultivated with field (8.3%) and vegetable crops (2%). Just over 35% of arable area in the emirate was fallow in 2017, according to SCAD figures. Excluding date palms, which account for the vast majority of fruit trees in the emirate, there were a total of 44,884 fruit trees in the Abu Dhabi region according to the last available figures in 2016, up more than 122% from 2015. Mango trees accounted for 15,480 of these, followed by apple trees (15,402) and orange trees, (7561), with each of the figures unchanged from the previous year. For the emirate as a whole, the number of fruit trees dipped only slightly from a total of 132,227 in 2015 to 131,699 the following year, with mango, cider fruit, orange, figs and pomegranate being the most abundant fruit tree crops. Date production in Abu Dhabi, which represents the emirate’s most important agricultural crop, grew from 72,900 tonnes in 2010 to 96,037 tonnes in 2016, before falling to 89,938 tonnes in 2017. The value of the crop rose from Dh439,873 ($120,000) in 2010 to Dh600,148 ($163,000) in 2016, retracting to Dh489,689 ($133,000) in 2017.

Abu Dhabi’s date industry is dominated by the state-owned company Al Foah, which has an annual production of over 113,000 tonnes, 90% of which is exported to 48 countries worldwide, including India, Jordan, Morocco and Indonesia. The company’s Al Foah Organic Dates Farm, located in Al Ain City, is the largest such farm in the world, with a total area of 635 ha and 63,000 date palms under cultivation. The company also buys dates from a network of more than 18,000 farmers across the UAE. The crop is then processed at one of its two processing facilities: the Emirates Dates Factory in Al Saad, which was established in 1998 and has a capacity of 60,000 tonnes per annum (tpa); and the Al Marfa Dates Factory, which was established in 1994 and exceeds 35,000 tpa of capacity.

The emirate also produced 95,620 tonnes of vegetables in 2017, up from 78,114 tonnes in 2016, according to Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA). The total supply value of these agricultural products rose from Dh191.9m ($52.2m) in 2016 to Dh275.2m ($74.9m) in 2017, a more than 43% increase. Cucumbers represented the largest share, at 35.2%, with a total output of 33,644 tonnes, followed by tomatoes with 23,874 tonnes and sweet corn with 13,225 tonnes. Despite the growth in agricultural production, the use of pesticides has dropped noticeably from 2015, when it equalled 30,658 litres, falling to 21,394 litres in 2016 and 15,522 litres in 2017, according to ADFCA.

As of 2017 there were 15,340 greenhouses in Abu Dhabi, up significantly from 8363 in 2010, though down from 16,037 in 2016, highlighting the strong push to develop year-round food production capacity. The majority of these greenhouses (9394) are located in Al Ain, followed by 3816 in Al Dhafra and the remaining 2130 in the Abu Dhabi region.

Livestock

The number of commercial animal farms stood at 32 in 2017, up from 25 in 2010. Of those, nine were chicken broiler farms, seven egg-producing layer farms, three parent stock farms and 13 cattle farms. According to ADFCA, farms in the emirate produced 23,733 tonnes of chicken meat in 2017, up slightly from 23,154 tonnes in 2016; 435.5m table eggs, significantly higher than 402.3m in 2016; and 114,260 tonnes of cattle milk, an increase of 9.7% from 104,132 the previous year.

Abu Dhabi has a sheep and goat population of 3.1m, according to ADFCA, with two-thirds of the livestock located in Al Ain, which is also home to around 59.7% of the emirate’s camels, a total of just over 408,000 heads. Together, sheep and goats made up 87.3% of the 3.5m livestock in the emirate in 2017, followed by camels (11.5%) and cattle (1.2%). This large livestock population has inevitably driven vast amounts of feed imports.

Fisheries & Aquaculture

Abu Dhabi’s extensive coastline helps to supply the local market with fish and other seafood. In 2017 the total fish catch in the emirate’s waters amounted to 4740 tonnes, with a market value of around Dh121.1m ($33m). This was an increase from 2016 figures, when the catch was 4439 tonnes and worth an estimated Dh112.9m ($30.7m), though down slightly from 2015 figures, when the catch was 5235 tonnes with a value of Dh128.3m ($34.9m), according to data from the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.

The scombridae family, which includes mackerel and tuna, accounted for 1812 tonnes in 2017. This was valued at Dh55.1m ($15m) and represented roughly 38.2% of the total catch, down from 42.4% in 2016. The epinephelidae family, or groupers, by comparison, made up 15% of the total catch and were worth Dh32.2m ($8.8m).

Trade

While Abu Dhabi has been focusing on its own food security needs in recent years, the emirate still exports agricultural produce abroad. The overall value of Abu Dhabi’s exported agricultural goods stood at approximately Dh1.1bn ($286.2m) in 2017, a drop from the Dh1.4bn ($381.1m) seen in 2016 and Dh1.7bn ($462.7m) in 2015.

In 2017 exports of live animals and their products were worth Dh227.6m ($61.9m), down 44% from 2016 when they were Dh407.2m ($110.8m), which itself was nearly half the figure of 2015 when exports reached Dh804.6m ($219m). The total value of exported foodstuffs, beverages, spirits and tobacco from the emirate also fell some 21.5%, from Dh672.8m ($183.1m) in 2016 to Dh528.1m ($143.7m) in 2017. The value of outgoing vegetable products rose 14.9% from Dh77.9m ($21.2m) in 2016 to Dh89.5m ($24.4m) in 2017. Exported animal or vegetable fats, oils and waxes, for their part, fell 28.9% from around Dh219.7m ($59.8m) in 2016 to approximately Dh156.3m ($42.6m) a year later.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s imported agricultural goods hit Dh7.8bn ($2.12bn) in 2017, up slightly from Dh7.7bn ($2.09bn) in 2016, though down from Dh8.7bn ($2.4bn) in 2015. In 2017 live animals and their products represented nearly 40% of these imports, according to SCAD figures, reaching Dh3.1bn ($834.9m), followed by vegetable products at Dh2.13bn ($579.8m), and foodstuffs, beverages, spirits and tobacco at Dh2.1bn ($571.2m).

The region’s unique climate ensures that imports in certain segments will continue to remain high.

Government Support

In late 2017 the UAE’s minister of climate change and environment released seven objectives that will govern the nation’s sustainability targets over the next five years: among others, giving value-added tax exemptions to farmers and creating initiatives for the care of livestock and animals, as well as best practices for the production of high-quality foodstuffs. The UAE government has set the goal of recycling 75% of food waste by 2021. In recent years Abu Dhabi has established a number of government bodies operating within the sector. ADFCA, which was established in 2005, was created in order to develop a sustainable agriculture and food sector through effective policies and regulations, quality standards, research and awareness. ADFCA is currently working on expanding the use of alternative irrigation sources and converting targeted farms to use treated wastewater by 2020, as well as enabling the agricultural sector to become self-managed to reduce the cost of government support programmes. These are in addition to other goals in its strategic plan for 2016-20, which include enabling the production of honey from approved local bee species in commercial quantities and implementing digital agricultural services to phase out paper-based transactions.

Meanwhile, the Food Security Centre - Abu Dhabi (FSCAD) was created in 2010 as an initiative of ADFCA to enhance food security in the emirate. Part of FSCAD’s role is to provide all UAE citizens and residents with access to healthy, nutritious and safe food even in emergency situations. In October 2017 Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri was appointed minister of state for food security in the UAE and tasked with overseeing the implementation of the necessary infrastructure to achieve this goal.

Production Plan

Established in 2009, the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC) is a key player in agricultural development, supporting local farmers in the adoption of new technologies, and providing technical training and advice as it looks to boost production of locally grown food. In August 2018 agricultural supply centres of ADFSC reported that they had recorded year-on-year growth of 22.6% in the sale of agro-inputs, veterinary products and tools and equipment in the first half of 2018.

At the same time, Local Harvest, the commercial arm of ADFSC, is responsible for the marketing and sale of locally produced goods. For its 2018/19 production plan, which runs until June 2019, ADFSC is focusing on 68 varieties of fresh vegetables, chief among them cucumbers, round tomatoes and peppers, and six fruit crops. The complete list includes 18 varieties of organic crops to try to encourage local farmers to make the switch to organics.

ADFSC also acts as an umbrella organisation for farmers, giving them market price for their produce. This in turn enables ADFSC to sell the produce to large local retailers in bulk. In March 2018 ADFSC announced an agreement to supply fresh local produce to Elite Agro, a leading Abu Dhabi producer and distributor of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The followed the conclusion in February 2018 of a cooperation agreement with Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Banking, which provides financial services to local and Japanese companies operating in the UAE. The agreement focuses on supporting the bank’s clients in their agricultural investments or expanding their activities in the field. Additionally, emphasis is on protected agriculture and post-harvest techniques, as well as other technologies that support the transition to modern agriculture and sustainable uses of water and soil resources – among these, efficient cooling systems for greenhouses, production of organic vegetables and green waste technologies.

Certification

There are an increasing number of farms in Abu Dhabi that have been certified as conforming to the standards set by Global Good Agricultural Practice (GLOBALGAP), a private entity setting 216 benchmarks that ensure such things as minimal environmental impact, safe levels of chemicals, and worker and animal welfare.

As of mid-2018 there were 300 farms that were GLOBALGAP certified. “Implementation of GLOBALGAP is one of ADFSC’s priorities for the Abu Dhabi farming sector,” Nasser Mohammed Al Junaibi, the acting CEO of ADFSC, told OBG, adding that the ultimate goal is to ensure that the agriculture sector achieves maximum sustainability and profitability, while also ensuring food security, social responsibility and environmental protection.

At the same time, ADFSC is planning to implement Abu Dhabi GAP, a localised version of GLOBALGAP, which will enable producers to comply with a specific subset of the GLOBALGAP standards. “It will help Abu Dhabi producers gain gradual recognition by providing tailor-made local standards which will help UAE retailers gain access to quality fresh produce, and support local producers through adoption and promotion of good agricultural practices,” he added.

Organic & Free Range

In February 2018 ADFSC signed agreements with 25 farms to transition them to organic methods, with the goal of converting around 20 farms annually to reach a target of 100 before 2022. The overall aim is to support sustainable concepts while promoting the benefits of more natural food production, and encouraging the use of organic pesticides and biological control systems instead of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Along these lines, Abu Dhabi-based Jenaan Investment is currently working on a free-range poultry project. “We will be producing free-range chicken for the local market,” Louis Smit, CEO of business planning and development at Jenaan Investment, which supplies the Abu Dhabi government with hay and forage for livestock, told OBG. “What makes it unique is that we are the first producer on a commercial scale that will be doing this. We will involve farmers as contract growers, which is quite a wellknown model in South Africa. We will be supplying day-old chicks. Farmers will get their feed and technical expertise from us, and after six weeks we will collect the chickens from the farmers, subtract the costs and pay them.” The company will start with 15,000-30,000 chickens a day, and hopes to have the project up and running by the end of 2018. “It will be a totally integrated project, from parent stock right through to retail distribution,” he added.

Water Use

According to the 2017 Food Sustainability Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition, the UAE ranked last out of 34 countries evaluated when it came to food system sustainability.

Water usage and scarcity have long been identified as a key challenge for agriculture development and food sustainability. The agriculture sector in the UAE accounts for less than 1% of GDP, yet irrigated agriculture is still the primary water consumer across the emirates, accounting for around 60% of total water use: 39% for productive agriculture, 11% for greening and landscaping, and 10% for forestry, according to research firm Fanack Water. Municipal use for household and industrial purposes makes up the remaining 40% of water consumption.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi, for its part, has in recent years strengthened efforts to reduce its level of water consumption, introducing tariffs in 2016 to encourage more efficient desalinated water use and strengthening laws concerning the illegal use of groundwater, a development that requires farmers to install water meters. Given the arid climate, where rainfall rarely exceeds 10 cm a year, agricultural developments, by their nature, go hand-in-hand with developments in irrigation and water use. Modern irrigation systems and hydroponics are increasingly important, with agricultural growth relying heavily on the adoption of the latest technologies. Significant efforts have gone into promoting the installation of modern irrigation systems to replace flood irrigation techniques. This includes the integration of sprinklers, drip and fountain irrigation systems, which together saw the reuse of treated water rise from 32% in 1999 to 91% by 2011. The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, launched in September 2017 to address water treatment, aims, among other things, to increase the reuse of treated water to 95%.

In early 2018 the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority announced that it had created the world’s largest reserve of artificially desalinated water under the Liwa desert, with the water piped in over a period of 27 months from the Shuweihat desalination plant. The reserve, which will store 5.6bn imperial gallons of desalinated water, is a key part of the emirate’s national water security strategy and was built at a cost of Dh1.6bn ($438.2m). The UAE as a whole currently consumes about 15% of the world’s desalinated water.

Greenhouses & Hydrophonics

In 2011 ADFSC began introducing hydroponics technology to farms in Abu Dhabi. Hydroponics, which involves the use of mineral-nutrient solutions in water to grow plants in little or no soil, enable farmers to grow different kind of crops outside the traditional off-seasons.

The use of hydroponics is expected to help reduce the overall use of chemical pesticides in Abu Dhabi, maximise the efficiency of production, and limit the amount of water and fertiliser needed. The technology, which can only be used in greenhouses, is capable of boosting production per cu metre of water nearly 10-fold. According to government figures, as of March 2018 there were 87 commercial farms using the technology in Abu Dhabi.

In 2014 the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, in collaboration with ADFSC, launched a programme under which farms were loaned money to either upgrade their greenhouses, or install new greenhouses and hydroponics systems. The Zaarie programme initially targeted 100 farms, with interest-free loans of up to Dh1m ($272,000). In January 2015 funding of Dh130m ($35.4m) was approved for 130 farms under the scheme, and as of May 2016 production at 47 of the farms had neared 100,000 kg of foodstuff a year, focusing on crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergine and lettuce.

“ADFSC plays a big role in the success of the Zaarie programme. Training sessions were given to farm workers on how to correctly install and operate the greenhouses and hydroponics system,” ADFSC’s Al Junaibi told OBG. “In the 2018/19 crop plan, all Zaarie farms products will have the priority to supply to ADFSC, where we are seeking to help increase income and encourage other agricultural producers to use high-tech greenhouses that feature temperature and humidity sensors to ensure ideal growing conditions at all times,” he added.

According to ADFCA, there are currently 15,340 greenhouses covering 5118 dunums in Abu Dhabi, enabling the growth of different crops throughout the year. In November 2017 Pure Harvest Smart Farms, an agri-business start-up, secured a $4.5bn investment to construct a 3.3-ha farm with a fully climate-controlled greenhouse in Nahel, Abu Dhabi. The facility, which will produce tomatoes, capsicum, courgettes, aubergines and strawberries for the local market, is set to be completed in mid-2018.

While looking at the development favourably, some involved in the sector remain unsure if it will have a strong impact in the short term. “I think hydroponics will be able to make some difference in the future, but at the moment, the produce grown using hydroponics is too expensive compared to imported products. Hydroponic produce is not competitive in the market,” Smit told OBG.

Private Partnerships

Abu Dhabi is continuing to broaden the involvement of the private sector in the agriculture sector, with ADFCA signing contracts in recent years with Abu Dhabi-based firms like Jenaan Investment, which has a long-term contract with the Abu Dhabi government to supply fodder for farmers in the emirate; and Al Dahra, which manages an international land bank of approximately 162,000 ha across more than 20 countries.

“ADFCA firmly believes that effective public-private partnerships and integrated efforts are prerequisites to ensure food safety and food sector developments,” Saeed Al Ameri, director-general of ADFCA, told OBG. “It seeks to support the government’s plans to ensure food supply by supporting local entrepreneurs and investors, as well as creating new partnerships within food, beverage and catering services,” Al Ameri added.

ADFCA also has set a target to make Abu Dhabi an attractive centre for food industries by promoting the emirate’s competitive economic environment.

In particular, the authorities are trying to develop the emirate as a regional centre for agri-business and food, given its geographic location, bringing in major food-processing companies and facilities. At the fourth edition of the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture in March 2017, Khalifa Al Ali, managing director of FSCAD, said that as much as 70% of some imported food items are re-exported from the country. “Our geographic location, political stability, good relations with many foreign countries and infrastructure support the food-processing sector and food export trade,” he told Gulf News.

One major local agri-business company is Al Dahra, which produces and trades in food for both human and animal consumption. In August 2016 Al Dahra, in partnership with India’s Kohinoor Foods, opened a Dh140m ($38.1m), 100,000-sq-metre rice-processing facility in the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD). The 40-silo facility will produce 120,000 tonnes of rice annually, with the aim of creating a 30,000-tonne strategic rice reserve for Abu Dhabi.

KIZAD is home to other food-processing facilities, such as Brazilian firm BRF, which opened a $160m, 160,000-sq-metre factory in December 2014, and Dubai-based Binghatti Holding, which in November 2016 announced a deal with Tetra Pak to finance a Dh25m ($6.8m) beverage-processing plant.

In June 2018 Edwin Lammers, vice-president of commercial and business development for KIZAD, said that KIZAD was working on two development projects, including a food city for the food-processing industry and a polymer park.

Outlook

Agriculture is continuing to expand in Abu Dhabi, as the emirate pushes to find new ways to further develop the sector and effectively overcome the challenges it faces, particularly in terms of its arid environment and limited water resources. While these obstacles will continue, the sector benefits from strong government support through organisations like ADFSC, and with the adoption of modern technology, ranging from hydroponics to greenhouses, there are ample opportunities for local farmers and producers, especially as the authorities continue to prioritise domestic food security.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2019

Agriculture & Food Security chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2019

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