Gulf oil producers need to draw up a long-term strategy to ensure enough food for their fast-growing populations and ease their heavy reliance on imports, according to a regional food official.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which sit atop more than 40 per cent of the world’s recoverable oil deposits, took the right decision to set up strategic food reserves that could be sufficient for up to one year but they need to take more measures, said Gasem Al-Assiri, the Sub-Regional Office Coordinator GCC and Yemen in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ESCCR), Al Assiri said GCC nations have become more vulnerable to food price fluctuations and other global factors due to the rapid increase in domestic food consumption as a result of the high population growth and change in eating styles because of high incomes.
“The GCC states must draft a long-term plan for any food emergency whether a natural or geo-political problem,” he said.
“The building of strategic reserves of basic commodities would protect the country from price fluctuations, and from problems affecting food producing countries that prevent export of agricultural goods.”
He said GCC states have actually started the process of designing silos to store grain for a period of 6–12 months, in order to have enough reserves to see through any contingency of food shortages.
“One of the most important features of this strategy would also be the establishment of an agency to monitor water and food security in GCC states, including all factors related to domestic production or food deficit, global production or prices. This will help decision makers to take the right decision and solve many problems for them,” he said.
“We must keep in mind that the problem of food security cannot be solved domestically, but through international cooperation.”
Al Assiri said several challenges face GCC nations in their efforts to secure food for their more than 40 million people, half of whom are expatriates.
They include the scarcity of renewable water resources, paucity of ways for preserving them and problems with their rational use, he said.
In addition, the region’s poor natural resources, such as arable land and pastures as well as bad climatic conditions hinder an increase in agricultural productivity.
“On the other hand, there are other issues related to the import of food. For instance, even if GCC states have the money, they may not always be able to buy food from abroad for reasons related to the food producing countries themselves, such as the drought—like the one Russia faced two years ago—that prevented the country from exporting wheat,” he said.
“The rice crisis in 2008 also forced exporting countries, such as India and Pakistan, to halt exports of that commodity.”
As for investments in other countries, Al Assiri said there are numerous problems linked to them, such as the emergence of new regimes in countries where investments were made. He said sometimes these new regimes refuse to accept the terms and conditions that were agreed upon at the time the investments were made. “In addition, the region faces a huge food deficit.”
Al Assiri noted that all GCC states are net importers of food because of their desert nature and the rapid growth in their populations.
“The rise in their populations and in their levels of income, the difficult climatic and topological conditions that impede any attempt to increase local food production, have all led to a huge increase of food imports in the region,” he said.
“The region has also seen a change in the pattern of food consumption, in terms of over-consumption, which in turn has led to an increase in imports.”
According to Al Assiri, farm investments of all developing countries, including the GCC, have declined in recent years to only five percent of their national budgets. “This does not meet expectations…. but on the other hand, we must not forget that there are limitations for the prospects of increasing agricultural production in the GCC countries, which makes them focus on farm imports and investments abroad to bridge the gap,” he said.
Official data showed GCC members and the other Arab countries have reeled under a massive cumulative farm import bill of more than $250 billion between 1990 and 2009. The gap is expected to have widened in the following two years and is set to expand in the coming years due to persistent conflicts in the region, high population growth, flawed policies and poor investments.