How technology is helping Abu Dhabi achieve food security

 

As a globally strategic industry, agriculture is a key target for expansion, modernisation and diversification in the emirate. Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 aims for the non-oil sector to make up 64% of the economy by 2030. Food and agriculture have an important part to play in achieving this and represent vast potential for growth into new areas.

In spite of the emirate’s dry desert conditions and high summer temperatures, the sector has made significant progress in recent years. The authorities are working on increasing local production in the face of high imports and a growing population. Currently, the UAE imports around 80-90% of its food, and the country’s population and tourist numbers is forecast to increase, with the former climbing to 11.5m by 2025, from 9.4m at present.

Linked to this is a major drive for food security at both the emirate and the national level, which while a challenge, also offers an opportunity to stimulate local food resources, farms and the private sector. Other priorities include advancing research and development (R&D), implementing and investing in agricultural technology (agri-tech) solutions, addressing water scarcity, and employing sustainable practices such as reducing food waste and ensuring the highest standards of food safety for a market that demands consistency and quality. In the face of the emirate’s commitment to address climate change, agriculture also remains a prominent area of focus for decarbonisation efforts.

Structure

A new authority was established in March 2019, which merged three previously separate entities that oversaw agriculture, food safety and food security. The Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority (ADAFSA) comprises the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre and the Food Security Centre - Abu Dhabi. ADAFSA is in charge of agriculture, food safety, food security and biosecurity in the emirate. Developing sustainable agriculture is at the core of its mandate, in addition to ensuring food security through sustainable agriculture, food safety and biosecurity, particularly by protecting the health of animals and plants. The authority is also responsible for inspecting and controlling Abu Dhabi’s food and agriculture establishments, farms, agricultural inputs, imported and exported agricultural products and food items, in addition to items produced in the other parts of the UAE that enter Abu Dhabi.

Additionally, ADAFSA manages and oversees emergency food reserves by cooperating with multiple entities in the private sector that house reserves. The authority issues licences and permits to those undertaking any agriculture or food activity, and plays both an enabling role and serves as an umbrella organisation for farmers. One of its key aims is to boost production of locally produced food by supporting local farmers in the adoption of new technologies, methodologies and practices, as well as providing technical training and advice.

The merger of the three entities, which were previously operating under the same roof, brings offices that were already working in cooperation closer together. The move was made as part of continuing efforts to improve the efficiency of the government and deliver cost-effective services. While the full benefits and outcomes of the recent restructuring have yet to be realised, the move was widely welcomed by the private sector.

Sector Strategies

At the national level, there are a number of strategies guiding the sector across the UAE. The National Food Security Strategy 2051 stands at the centre of long-term aims to make the UAE rank first on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index by 2051 and among the top-10 countries by 2021. The strategy places emphasis on diversifying food import sources, enhancing local production, reducing waste, improving nutrition and making production sustainable through the use of modern technologies, among other areas.

The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036 is aimed at reducing the country’s total water demand by 21% by 2036, while at the same time increasing water productivity and the reuse of treated water to 95%. Food security and realising a sustainable agriculture sector feature prominently in the Abu Dhabi Plan as well, standing as one of its 25 goals.

Achieving greater agricultural sustainability remains a long-term challenge not just for Abu Dhabi, but also for the global agriculture industry. Agriculture, forestry and other land uses account for around one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. One of the largest contributors to this is livestock supply chains, which are estimated to account for more than 14% of all emissions. This includes emissions from livestock feed production and processing, as well as outputs from digestion.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, wider adoption of existing technologies and best practices can help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector. Increasing agricultural yields while conserving natural resources and reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture is at the heart of this challenge. In Abu Dhabi, ADAFSA has been working to develop a new strategy, due to launch in 2020, which will incorporate and review the development goals from its three former entities.

Economic Contribution

According to preliminary estimates for 2019 released by Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi, the value added of the emirate’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector was approximately Dh6.7bn ($1.8bn), accounting for 0.7% of total GDP at current prices that year. In real terms, the sector’s contribution to GDP was consistent each year between 2010 and 2019, at 0.7%. The sector experienced growth of 3.2% in real terms in 2019, moderating from growth of 6.1% in 2018 and 4.6% in 2017. Headline economic growth, meanwhile, moved in the opposite trajectory; the emirate’s GDP rose by 1.5% in 2019, after growth of 1.2% in 2018 and a contraction of 0.9% in 2017.

Resources

Overall, the resources available to the agriculture sector across the country have grown significantly over the past four decades. At the time of the UAE’s founding in 1971, the number of agriculture holdings totalled 634. By 2019 this had increased 38-fold to 24,018. Over the same period available arable land expanded from 22,377 to 749,868 dunums (a dunum is roughly 0.1 ha).

Most arable land is located in Al Ain, which has approximately 60.3% of the emirate’s plant holdings, followed by the Al Dhafra Region (27.7%) and the Abu Dhabi Region (12%). In 2019 just under 63% of arable land was cultivated, with 37.4% remaining fallow. Fruit cultivation, including date palms, accounted for 272,322 dunums of arable land, while field crops accounted for 36,259.1 dunums and vegetables for 18,710.6 dunums. Date palms continued to account for the vast majority of the emirate’s fruit trees. Major non-date fruit trees include mango, apple, citrus, fig and pomegranate trees.

There were a total of 24,018 farms in the emirate in 2019, the majority of which were small, with 9774 farms ranging from 30 to 39 dunums in size. Around 6450 farms spanned 20-29 dunums, followed by 4490 farms with less than 20 dunums each. The number of greenhouses, meanwhile, decreased from 18,269 in 2018 to 17,866 in 2019. The majority of greenhouses are in the Al Ain Region, which had 12,145 greenhouses as of 2019, followed by the Al Dhafra Region (3603) and the Abu Dhabi Region (2118). Greenhouses are critical to the emirate’s goal of developing year-round food production capacity.

Livestock

Abu Dhabi has experienced steady growth in livestock populations, though it recorded a slight decline in the most recent year. Total livestock was 3.5m in 2019, down from 3.6m in 2018 but up on the 2.4m in 2010. Sheep and goats account for the largest proportion, numbering 1.7m and 1.3m, respectively, in 2019. Together, sheep and goats made up 85.8% of total livestock in 2019, followed by camels (12.7%) and cattle (1.5%). Al Ain is home to 65% of the emirate’s livestock, followed by the Abu Dhabi Region (18.2%) and the Al Dhafra Region (16.3%). The number of animal holdings was 25,087 in 2019, up from 24,189 in 2018 and 17,963 in 2010. Commercial animal farms numbered 36 in 2018, the latest year for which data was available, up from 32 in 2017 and 25 in 2010. Of the 2018 figure, 14 were cattle farms, followed by 10 chicken broiler farms, nine egg-producing layer farms and three parent stock farms. Some 629,913 animals were treated in veterinary clinics in 2019, up from 561,376 in 2018.

Output & Performance

Dates are Abu Dhabi’s most important agricultural crop. Date production totalled 245,027 tonnes in 2018, an increase from 242,425 tonnes in 2017, 240,865 tonnes in 2016 and 224,788 tonnes in 2010. The value of the crop at the publicly owned company Al Foah totalled Dh600.2m ($163.4m) in 2019, representing an increase from the Dh482.6m ($131.4m) in 2018, Dh489.7m ($133.3m) in 2017 and Dh600.1m ($163.3m) in 2016. Al Foah accounts for the vast majority of date production and exports 90% of its production.

Field crop production amounted to 161,506 tonnes in 2019, with a value of Dh227.8m ($62m). This represents a drop from 177,589 tonnes in 2018, valued at Dh247.8m ($67.5m). Abu Dhabi’s vegetable production at individual farms totalled 122,549.8 tonnes in 2019, up from 100,362 tonnes in 2018, 95,620 tonnes in 2017 and 78,114 tonnes in 2016. Alongside this, the value of vegetable crop production has risen significantly in recent years, from approximately Dh191.9m ($52.2m) in 2016 to Dh275.2m ($74.9m) in 2017, Dh288.7m ($78.6m) in 2018 and Dh356.3m ($97.0m) in 2019. The largest crops were cucumbers (64,774.3 tonnes) and tomatoes (20,245.5 tonnes), with average yields of approximately 19.7 tonnes and 7.8 tonnes per dunum, respectively. This was followed by cabbages (12,326.5 tonnes), onions (4492.7 tonnes), eggplants (4285.2 tonnes) marrow (4277.3 tonnes) and broccoli (1554.2 tonnes).

The latest available figures show that poultry production at commercial farms stood at 22,408 tonnes in 2018, a slight decline from 23,733 tonnes in 2017 but a significant increase from 15,225 tonnes in 2010. Some 529.7m eggs were produced in 2018, a steep jump from 435.5m in 2017 and 127m in 2010. In 2018, 136,930 tonnes of cow’s milk was produced, up from 114,260 in 2017 and 66,086 in 2010.

Around 28,677 tonnes of meat were produced in 2019. Camel meat accounted for 44.8% of meat produced from slaughter, followed by that of sheep and goat (39.4%), and beef (15.8%). The value of meat produced from slaughter was Dh1.1bn ($299.4m), a slight moderation from Dh1.2bn ($326.6m) in 2018 but up from Dh830.4m ($226.0m) in 2017 and Dh473.0m ($128.8m) in 2010.

The emirate’s total fish catch in 2019 numbered 2598 tonnes, a significant decline from 4892 tonnes in 2018, 4740 tonnes in 2017, 4439 tonnes in 2016 and 5235 tonnes in 2015. In 2019 the value of fish caught was Dh57.2m ($15.6m). The largest fish categories were epinephelinae, which accounted for Dh16.4m ($4.5m); followed by scombridae, which includes mackerel and tuna, which accounted for Dh14.2m ($3.9m); and carangidae at Dh8.7m ($2.4m).

Exports

Abu Dhabi’s export of agricultural produce abroad remained broadly consistent in 2018 compared to 2017, before dropping in 2019. The value of total exported agricultural goods and food was Dh7.4bn ($2.01bn) in 2017, Dh7.5bn ($2.04bn) in 2018 and Dh6.3bn ($1.71bn) in 2019. Foodstuffs, beverages and spirits accounted for more than half of the value of exports in 2019, at Dh3.4bn ($925.5m), a moderation on the Dh3.8bn ($1bn) in 2018. This was followed by live animals and their products, which totalled Dh1.8bn ($490.0m), down from Dh2.4bn ($653.3m) in 2018. Exports of animal or vegetable fats, oils and waxes was Dh378.5m ($103.0m), down from Dh568.6m ($154.7m) in 2018. Conversely, the value of exported vegetable products rose in 2019, from Dh623.2m ($169.6m) to Dh640.1m ($174.2m).

The value of re-exports of agricultural goods and food stood at Dh3.3bn ($898.3m) – down slightly from Dh3.4bn ($925.5m) in 2018 but up significantly from Dh2.6bn ($707.7m) in 2017. Vegetable products accounted for most of this value (56%); followed by foodstuffs, beverages, spirits and tobacco (30.3%); and live animals and their products (13.4%).

Imports

Imports of agricultural goods and food were valued at Dh7.8bn ($2.12bn) in 2019, up slightly from Dh7.7bn ($2.10bn) in 2018. By value, 35.1% of these imports were live animals and their products, accounting for Dh2.74bn ($745.83m), a fall from Dh2.85bn ($775.77m) in 2018. This was followed by vegetable products, representing 34.3% of the total, at Dh2.68bn ($729.50m), down from Dh2.39bn ($650.56m) in 2018; and foodstuffs, beverages, spirits and tobacco, which accounted for 25.6%, or Dh2.00bn ($544.40m), broadly the same as in 2018.

New Funding

Local and international investment strategies are being used to boost agricultural production and food security in Abu Dhabi. In March 2019 the Abu Dhabi government approved a Dh5.6bn ($1.5bn) R&D fund to help address water scarcity and food security challenges. The funds will be channelled into R&D aimed at developing solutions to global food and water issues. The announcement was accompanied by a government directive to develop a comprehensive strategy to expand the scope of R&D as well as a regulatory framework for research.

As part of the emirate’s drive to become a global centre for desert environment agriculture innovation, the government also announced a series of incentive packages in March 2019, totalling Dh1bn ($272.2m), for local or international agri-tech companies to establish a presence in Abu Dhabi. The initiative is part of the Abu Dhabi government’s economic accelerator programme Ghadan 21, or Tomorrow 21, and is being led by the Abu Dhabi Investment Office. The scheme dovetails with the emirate’s strategic goals of broadening R&D and creating jobs of the future.

Food Security

Food security is a policy priority for the UAE, and Abu Dhabi plays an integral role in advancing the country’s various strategies of longterm food security and self-sufficiency. Defined as the access, availability, use and stability of a nation’s food system by the UN Committee on World Food Security, being food secure is a multifaceted challenge. It concerns the production, distribution, utilisation and consumption of food, and the ability to respond to crises, disasters and shocks.

In 2017 a UAE minister of state for food security was appointed to strategically address the challenge. This includes ensuring access to food in emergency situations that is healthy, nutritious and safe for consumption. Certain infrastructure also needs to be prepared for such eventualities.

The UAE’s heavy reliance on food imports is due to the country’s desert climate and limited water supply, which creates significant barriers to largescale domestic agricultural production. Imports are often expensive and subject to international price fluctuations. Moreover, climate change threatens to heighten the risk of global food price spikes and the availability of imports from environmentally stressed nations. The emirate’s and the wider UAE’s drive for food security comes at a time when the global food system needs to be redesigned to create a system that is healthy, sustainable and more resilient to rising temperatures seen worldwide.

Recent Progress

The UAE has made important strides in this area. In 2019 the country ranked 21st out of 113 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, up 10 from 2018. This has been attributed to its ability to purchase food on international markets, and the country’s political and economic stability. A federal food security initiative is in place that is aiming to make the supply of a basket of 40 different goods secure. Abu Dhabi-based food and beverage company Agthia is an active member of the Food Security Alliance, contributing about 40% of the food security basket. The initiative necessitates coordination among the range of actors involved in the supply chain, including those in production, processing, wholesaling and retailing, storing, consuming, disposing and recycling.

While the emirate is pushing for higher levels of domestic production, imports will continue to account for a significant share of food consumption. Abu Dhabi’s strong trade links and trade and logistics infrastructure help to secure vital supply chains. Agthia, for example, procures ingredients from all over the world. The emirate’s robust supply chains ensure a wide range of foodstuffs are available year-round to cater to the population’s varied diets.

Local Production

Promoting local food production is an essential part of the drive for food security, expanding on existing agricultural infrastructure to create local economies of scale and reduce imports. In this regard, ADAFSA is committed to ensuring quality and raising the profile of local products in the market. It is also working to increase profitability for farmers to guarantee their future income as well as ensure the competitiveness of local products, given the higher prices of locally produced goods. The push to adopt and develop agri-tech is anticipated to be central to achieving these goals.

As part of efforts to facilitate growth in local production and enhance farmers’ access to markets, ADAFSA has its own brand, called Local Harvest, through which it markets local agricultural products. As of December 2019 the authority had signed procurement contracts with more than 600 local farms to supply produce for the brand, and that same month ADAFSA also signed an agreement with large retailers and wholesalers to sell these products. ADAFSA has developed a mobile app for training Abu Dhabi’s farmers in best practices. It provides users with the latest technical information for popular crops and livestock to help farmers. The emirate is focused on research and investment, and the adoption of appropriate technologies to help expand local production. For example, vertical farming using hydroponics is being rolled out. As of early 2020, 89 farms had hydroponic projects, which vastly reduce required agricultural inputs such as water and soil. In September 2019 ADAFSA launched a livestock genetic identification project aimed at identifying breeds that are best suited for Abu Dhabi’s environment in order to achieve the highest productivity for farmers. The project supports food self-sufficiency goals and involves developing a genetic map of livestock breeds. In October 2019 researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi released a new genome sequence for the date palm, which is expected to assist breeders in finding genes to develop new and improved varieties of date palms. It is currently the most complete genome sequence that is available for the crop, and it enables the identification of genes for fruit colour and sugar content.

Quality Control

Food safety is an essential element of food security for Abu Dhabi and the UAE. Several measures have been taken to ensure quality standards at the national level. In 2016 a law was passed that imposed standards and regulations for the safety and quality of food and introduced penalties for breaches. This is implemented by the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment through its National Food Safety Committee. In 2018 the National Food Accreditation and Registration System was introduced, which requires food items to be registered on an online system before entering the market. This was done to both speed up the food importation process and prevent undocumented and illegal trade. In 2017 the National Rapid Alert System for Food was launched to ensure the proper implementation of response measures when serious food risks are detected. Controls have also been introduced for food imported for non-trading purposes. Part of ADAFSA’s role is to conduct research on food safety and issue related regulations. The authority has recently been pushing for improved standards in grading, packing and packaging for fruit and vegetable products.

Food Waste

While sustainably increasing local production is a priority in Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE, efforts are also being made to address the levels of food waste and consumption. Rates of food utilisation remain a challenge across the globe. Around one-third of food produced for human consumption internationally is wasted every year, including wastage in the supply chain and at the retail and consumption level. In 2018 the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment announced that food waste costs the UAE economy approximately Dh13bn ($3.5bn) annually. According to the 2018 Food Sustainability Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition, the UAE ranked last in terms of food loss and waste out of 35 high-income countries. In 2017 the UAE launched a food bank to distribute leftover food from hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. A national campaign in 2015 also focused on encouraging consumers and businesses to consume fruit and vegetables that look imperfect or odd but taste normal. Furthermore, ADAFSA is promoting improved post-harvest techniques to address the loss of crops.

Packaging is a prime focus for waste-reduction efforts. Food packaging in the region is changing, and today many companies are starting to look at sustainable packaging innovations and other initiatives such as the increased use of recyclable PET packaging. Similarly, the authorities are making efforts across the country to help users change habits and commit to recycling what they can.

Nutrition

Ensuring nutritious and sustainable food for all, including access to sufficient vitamins and minerals, and overcoming poor diets – which in turn have negative health consequences – is another major policy goal for both the emirate and the country. Globally, there are now more people who are overweight or obese than underweight. This comes at a significant cost to economies. Abu Dhabi is not immune to this challenge, having a prevalence of cases of obesity and poor dietary patterns. The UAE as a whole ranked 25th out of 35 in nutritional challenges in the 2018 Food Sustainability Index.

The UAE’s National Nutrition Strategy 2017-21 aims to improve the nutrition of the UAE’s population and in turn reduce morbidity arising from various diet-related risk factors. In December 2019 a so-called sin tax on sugary foods and beverages was introduced as part of these efforts. In recent years organic farming has also been gaining traction, which helps to ensure higher-quality food while reducing the use of chemicals. Though the quantity of pesticides rose in 2019 to 25,519 litres, it saw a significant decline from 21,394 litres in 2016 to 16,377 litres in 2018.

Water Scarcity

Food production is heavily dependent on freshwater resources, accounting for around 70% of freshwater use globally; however, these supplies are dwindling in Abu Dhabi. Sustainable water withdrawal is a significant challenge, particularly as intensive use of groundwater in irrigation has already reduced finite supplies. Research firm Fanack Water estimates that the UAE’s agriculture sector is responsible for around 60% of total water usage across the country, with 39% used by productive agriculture, 11% used in greening and landscaping, and the remaining 10% used in forestry.

To address the challenge, the emirate has been increasing the use of non-conventional resources, including desalinated water and treated wastewater. Agriculture accounted for an estimated 21.7% of desalinated water consumption in 2019, or around 50bn gallons. Desalination brings other challenges, however, including energy consumption. This is indicative of the challenge the emirate and country faces in striking a balance between environmental targets and local food production. Over recent decades the country has pushed hard to increase the use of modern irrigation methods including sprinkler, drip and fountain irrigation systems. The use of such systems expanded from 32% of farms in 1999 to 91% in 2011.

Under a combined effort by the Department of Energy, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company, the emirate has begun to increase the use of treated water. The initiative involves collecting district water and treating it to level three, which, following a study conducted with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, has been certified as acceptable for agriculture production. A pilot trial project, which started in 2014, has used grey water at 140 farms. Based on these results, the emirate’s government has decided to take the initiative forwards. With government oversight and the help of firms, plans are being developed to install a separate distribution network for grey water, which is hoped to be in place by 2022.

R&D

In April 2019 Abu Dhabi hosted the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture, the world’s largest showcase of agri-tech innovation. In addition to serving as a platform for dialogue, the 2019 forum included an expo of products and services demonstrating new innovations in the sector.

Companies are playing a leading role in addressing Abu Dhabi’s food issues through R&D. For instance, Agthia is investing in R&D and focusing on building a patent portfolio. The company invests about 1% of net sales in R&D and has two technology plants for R&D, as well as external partners worldwide. Their innovations have included improved animal feed, which needs to be especially nutritious to be able to provide adequate nourishment to animals living in the emirate’s climate conditions.

To address vitamin D deficiencies among Abu Dhabi’s population, the company has released its Al Ain Vitamin D water, developing a way for the vitamin D to only activate when it reaches the stomach to avoid it from decomposing in the sun. Through innovations such as these, companies are able to serve a market that is increasingly demanding products that are more focused on health and well-being.

Outlook

While challenges remain for the development of the agriculture sector, given the desert climate in the emirate and the wider UAE, advances in technology and the range of federal and emirate-level support frameworks in place bode well for the future of the agriculture sector.

Moving forwards, significant investment will be required to achieve the goals the emirate has laid out in terms of environmental and food production targets. Nonetheless, food security will continue to be a prism through which Abu Dhabi’s authorities view the sector, and stands as a priority in terms of guaranteeing the resilience of the local food system in the face of possible external shocks and stresses.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2020

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