From Dubai to Doha: Can the Middle East become a leader in food and agricultural sustainability?

From Dubai to Doha: Can the Middle East become a leader in food and agricultural sustainability?

The Middle East region, and in particular the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region consisting of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, is increasingly a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and food practices, as is demonstrated by World Expo 2020 Dubai and Horticultural Expo 2023 Doha.

A push from the top, coupled with necessity

As a result of strategy as well as external forces, the Middle East is undergoing an economic shift, and this can be particularly felt in agriculture. Diversification strategies, notably in GCC countries, are pushing to bring innovation, diversity in economic output (in particular with highly skilled sectors such as tech, fintech, creative industries and agritech), entrepreneurship, and sustainability.

Agriculture is playing a large role in much of this. The UAE – a country that has less than one per cent of its land that is considered arable – was at one point importing 90 per cent of its food. Back in 2018, the UAE National Strategy for Food Security was presented by Minister of State for Food Security, Her Excellency Mariam Hareb Almheiri. According to the UAE government website, “The strategy defines the elements of the national food basket, which includes 18 main types, based on 3 main criteria: knowledge of the volume of domestic consumption of the most important products, production capacity, and processing and nutritional needs.” Two of the goals are to make the UAE the world’s best in the Global Food Security Index by 2051, in part by enhancing local production.

Vertical farm featured in the Netherlands pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai © Expo 2020 Dubai LLC - SO

Driving innovation in agriculture

Because much of the land in the Middle East is not arable, how can food production be ramped up? A key way is by developing artificial environments (i.e. greenhouses) and by supporting efficient mechanisms to have year-round farming. The rise of greenhouses in the Middle East has been particularly notable in GCC countries. The vertical farming market in the Middle East and Africa is expected to reach USD 1.21 billion by this year at a combined annual growth rate of 26.4 per cent from merely USD 380 million in 2016. Countries such as the UAE have seen growth in greenhouses producing home-grown fruit and vegetables, such as tomatoes and melons, for local consumption.

Expo 2020 Dubai, which is being hosted by the UAE after a year-long postponement due to Covid-19, will close its gates on 31 March 2022. The subthemes of the world’s largest gathering are Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. After this, the Middle East region will see another Expo when Qatar hosts a Horticultural Expo in Doha. This Expo will open on 2 October 2023 under the theme of “Green Desert, Better Environment”.

The Farm to Fork food sustainability conference hosted in Italy's pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. © Expo 2020 Dubai LLC - SO

At Expo 2020 Dubai, many country pavilions are showcasing their efforts and innovations in respect to food sustainability. The Expo’s Food, Agriculture and Livelihoods Week is currently taking place with dozens of events dedicated to the topic, and the Dubai Exhibition Centre at Expo 2020 Dubai is hosting the Food For Future Summit on 23-24 February 2022. Over 60 world leaders and influential minds, 150 speakers, and the world’s best startups, innovators and food revolutionaries, all plan to unite with purpose across these events. This initiative will further demonstrate to the whole world the challenge and innovative thinking of setting a foundation for sustainability in food security.

Food security is a global challenge but one that can be addressed by targeted and innovative mechanisms. At Expo 2020 Dubai, and with the upcoming Horticultural Expo 2023 Doha, the innovations and solutions that will contribute towards a more healthy and sustainable food system for all will be on show, telling the world what can be accomplished when nations come together.

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