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Thu 28 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Why the Gulf is filling its larder

Dr Rashid Ahmad Bin Fahad, UAE Minister of Environment and Water, on the global food crisis.

The rising price of oil has helped swell regional budget surpluses but it has also fuelled the rampant increase in global food prices. The UAE and other regional economies are now seeking ways to ensure their long-term food security. While they move to conserve scarce water resources at home, some states are also acquiring arable land in countries that include Sudan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. So will food be the oil of the future?

How did the current food crisis we are seeing come about?

This is largely the result of 30 years of a policy of relying on international markets for food supply, and a decline in investment into commodity and agricultural development.

We need to develop strategies for securing food supply in the Arab region. International partnerships are essential.

This is a global problem, not just the UAE. We need to go back and invest in agriculture but that will take time. I don't think anyone would argue that the Gulf needs a new policy for the securing of stable food supply.

Will the Gulf ever be able to support and feed itself? Can it overcome climatic constraints?

I don't think there is one Gulf country that can sustain itself, either the UAE or other GCC countries. The scarcity of water is a leading factor in this, and the harsh conditions [for agriculture], so we are encouraging securing minimum investment in agriculture, but we will continue to rely on importing foodstuffs.

Specifically, what is the biggest problem facing the UAE in this area?

We are an international trade hub, for both the importation and exportation of foodstuffs to surrounding countries. So we don't have a problem with supply, we are just affected by the high prices and market fluctuations.

How much are you investing abroad for food supply, and what are you investing in?

There is a project in Sudan and one project is in Pakistan. There is another similar and bigger project coming online soon in a new location, which is yet to be announced and I cannot tell you because of the contractual issues when you do business with another country. We are confident that these policies will achieve food security for the UAE, and promote opportunities for agricultural production in these countries.

Are you doing any oil-for-food swaps?

No, no.

What is the UAE's current food importing bill? Is it expected to increase?

In 2007, the UAE imported $4bn of commodities and food. This figure will continue to grow in line with the emirates' population growth but I don't have any exact numbers on how much it will increase over time.

How is the UAE addressing the global issue of food shortages and increasing prices?

Globally, food prices are increasing day by day. The UAE needs to secure water supply for development of agriculture, and investment is going on in this field. With the current technologies available in this area, we don't think we will have any problems securing water supply in the future.

What are you hoping to achieve in the long term?

We are focusing on the issues in the Arab world. We need to develop strategies for securing food supply in the Arab region and a joint effort is needed. International partnerships are essential with these poor countries.

We need to exchange ideas on what should be done to address the imbalance of supply and demand for food commodities, which has led to the unprecedented price rises we have been witnessing.

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