If you’ve ever been to or lived in the United Arab Emirates, you might be as surprised as those who haven’t to know that the UAE does produce its own crops. Local produce is a rare sight in UAE’s supermarket, as more than 90% of its food products are imported from across the globe. Such a phenomenon is present in numerous other countries- where imports are unreasonably high or even worse, at an equal rate as exports. This begs the question: can a small desert land such as the UAE reduce its reliance on importing if it really tried? And why should it, anyway?
Global Food Trade
Global food trade has been a subject of heavy discussion and debate lately. Figuratively, food systems account for one-third of global emissions and are the second largest emitters of greenhouse gases- mainly due to the travel of food through land, air, and sea. Thus, the transport of food- exasperated by patterns of global food trade- contributes approximately 19 percent of global food system greenhouse gas emissions. The map below, for instance, illustrates the complex supply chain of red meat production in China alone. Arrows indicate the food transport emissions, while the bubbles show food production emissions.
 Map of red meat supply chain emissions in China (in tonnes or kilotonnes of CO2e)
Farming in the UAE
In countries such as the UAE, agriculture faces many difficulties. Since it is primarily a desert, less than 5% of its land is arable, while the level of salt in waters only continues to increase. Currently, groundwater reserves are being used more than 20 times faster than they can be recharged. At this rate, fresh water is expected to diminish in 60-70 years, according to Murtada, an agricultural engineer working in Silal. Abu Dhabi’s municipality even tried to use treated effluent to irrigate food crops back in 2012- a decision that was met with disapproval and resistance. It ultimately failed crops and was quickly abandoned. “Now the UAE is focusing on recycling water in greenhouses and equipping farms with water salination devices”, says Murtada.
Presently, there are about 2000 farms in the emirate of Abu Dhabi alone, concentrated in Al Ain, Al Gharbia, Al Wathbah, Al Khatam and Al Dhafra regions among others. Open fields are also widely present, with crops being grown primarily during the months of October to April. “Production [of crops] takes place in specific seasons, not throughout the year. Only specific crops can be produced as well, such as tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, leafy greens, and cucumbers.” Explains farm owner Hareef Al Mard from Abu Dhabi.
Yet farm owners in the UAE are still striving to increase their produce with the help of new technologies, as well as the government’s support. Greenhouses and Net houses are extensively used in the UAE due to the hot weather, using solar and diesel energy for electricity. The UAE is also investing in water farming, where 70% of the water is recycled and thus addresses water scarcity. “No pesticide is needed either, making it much more convenient for the farmer.” Says Murtada. However, water farming is very expensive for your regular farm owner, according to an Emirati farmer owner in Abu Dhabi.
The Local Market
“Open importing is the biggest challenge in this country, aside from the weather and salt water.” Says Hareef. This is one of the many negative impacts of an open global food trade as seen in countries all over the world. Farmers in the UAE usually sell their produce at food Co-ops in the emirates of Dubai and Sharjah. The produce that isn’t sold is returned to the farmer.
“Food co-ops and markets don’t care about where you brought your produce from or how you maintained it.” Says an Emirati farm owner. “Open fields or greenhouses, they’ll still sell at the same price or lower. Competition in the local market is very unfair. Customers find imported crops sold for cheaper and so they buy them. This is how the imported foods break the local market.”
He went on to give an example from his own personal experience. “I would have a really good produce of cucumbers- grown in greenhouses with good soil- which cost me about 5 DHS per 16 KG, but then I’d have to sell it for 1.5 – 2.5 DHS. More often than not, we incur losses, not profit. I pump in money from my own personal savings just to keep the farm going.”
Shifting the Narrative at COP28
These complaints aren’t said without proposed solutions either. “As a first step, the government should put a quota on food imports, such as Saudia Arabia and Jordan.” Says farm owner Hareef. “They could also forbid imports during specific months, for example from December to February, as a test.”
During a panel discussion at the 42nd edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), the Minister of Climate Change and environment Marian Almheiri (Former minister of state for Food Security) said the UAE “wants to increase imports but decrease our dependence on imports”. Their top priority is to maintain food security and achieve the UAE national food security strategy 2051. However, efforts have also been made to enhance local production as part of the strategy. “The emirate of Abu Dhabi has set a goal to increase local production by 20% each year. It has currently surpassed 37 million tons of local produce, and targets to surpass 100 million tons of local produce in the next 2 seasons.” Says Agricultural engineer Emad.
H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Almheiri speaking at a panel discussion titled “The Significance of Promoting Sustainable Food Systems” at Sharjah International Book Fair Nov 2023.
Such ambitions cannot be achieved without regulated market prices and restricted imports for farmers and farm owners, however. These discussions are especially important with the 28th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28) going on in from the 30th Nov until 12th Dec, as questions are asked about the UAE’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and its role in shifting the narrative away from global food trade. With H.E Mariam Almheiri as the COP28 Food Systems lead of negotiations, her message is not only important but vital in shaping the coming decisions.
In conclusion, while great work has been done to increase local food production in the UAE, much more work is needed in terms of policies to create an enabling environment for local farmers to sell their own produce and encourage them to become more productive. This matters not only for farmers and farm owners of the UAE, but also as an example for over 80,000 delegates convening in Dubai and those representing their country.