How Technology is increasing the Food Security in GCC

The global pandemic of 2020 has brought to the global attention the need for advanced food security, supply management, and self-sufficiency.

A new United Nations (UN) report launched in 2019 states that the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050. It is also expected to peak at nearly 11 billion around 2100.

A growing population always comes with its merits and challenges as well. 

Most people love to talk about food; but as the global population increases with the society currently faced with a pandemic and the impact of climate change on how we live, food production, security, and distribution must become sustainable. Practical ways to reform agriculture such as soil conservation, consumer education about behavioral changes, and the use of technology to produce, distribute, and reduce wastage ought to have a place on the discussion table. 

As part of EROE’s Business Transformation Explained Webinar series, CEO Daniel F. Solomon led a panel made of Jude Hamod from SRTIP and George Stoyanov from Grant Thornton to predict the future of food security, and answer questions on how innovation and technology can be used as tools in tackling food waste. 

With an extensive background in technology, Jude is the Head of Business Development at the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park whilst George is a Partner at Grant Thornton, a tax and auditing firm in the UAE.

What is food security and how is it economically impacting the UAE and the GCC region?

The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security defines it as the means by which “people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” The core of food security is whether people have physical access to food and whether they can feed themselves. 

Secondly, do people have economic access or economic strength for food? This can be looked at from the point of not only the individual person but collectively; first as countries and then from a global perspective. This means that each individual has the opportunity to have food and access its distribution and economic elements to support their families, nations, and so on. This should be done in the most environmentally sustainable and friendly manner in a supply chain cycle that is viable and secured making sure that food is not wasted. 

Each member of the cycle will play a pivotal role in this, and so it is everyone’s business to make this a mindset. Food production, capacity in terms of harvesting as well as technology plays a crucial role. These thoughts were shared by George Thornton during the discussion.

Locally, the UAE stepped up the vision towards the future of food security by launching the National Food Security Strategy which aims to make the  UAE one of the world’s best countries in the Global Security Index by 2051 and among the top 10 countries by 2021.

Main challenges to food security for a global population heading towards 9 billion by 2050

From a technology perspective, Jude Hamod believes that the population is still growing and GDP per capita is also increasing which drives global demand for foods that are resource-intensive such as processed foods. It’s not exactly the availability or affordability factor always for her, however, the main problem is the impact on the environment. Resource-intensive foods have had a negative impact on the environment such as on water, global warming, and the loss of biodiversity. There are ways to tackle these with the right technology. Farming techniques that use resources more efficiently, incorporating food waste processing well, and also going towards a diet that is less based on animal intensive resources is a way to go even though, with the latter, food may become more expensive.

The role of innovation by farmers and how we can support farmer-led innovation to tackle some of these challenges.

The agricultural sector has different challenges globally. In the UAE water consumption is one of them. Techniques such as vertical farming or hydroponics which aim to yield productivity through soilless, precision agriculture which uses satellite, productivity monitoring, huge use of drones, and IoT and technology must be implemented on a large scale. Currently, Jude Hamod mentioned one of the three companies in the UAE which are fully equipped to apply these techniques and several others and must be supported from all angles such as Agritech (Agricultural Technology) and Finance to sustain them. Making technology accessible means investing heavily in technology and innovation.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme has warned that an additional 130 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, on top of the 135 million people who were already acutely food insecure before the crisis. This is alarming, and a reflection of the looming impact of food insecurity.

What is the best way to turn people into producing locally and how can it help improve the entire supply chain?

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted livelihoods especially in the F&B and Hospitality sectors which are traditionally big in the UAE. We have to support the production of locally produced food even from the perspective of the consumer. Fruits and vegetables are the most perishable items in terms of the food supply chain system and so they rank high in the wastage part. This is why local supply should be encouraged. Hypermarkets and local online stores can also help here. Governments and regulators have a role to play as well. Financiers such as banks can help by investing, and this will create a domino effect to the benefit of all, according to George. There are many opportunities in Agritech and using analytics will be helpful to prevent food loss. Innovation is key.

How do we address the controversy of constantly producing more food to meet the growing demands of the population?

A large percentage of fruits and vegetables always go to waste. They are most susceptible to food wastage because of their natural elements which makes them more perishable. Transporting them means that there may not be a need to add more additives in preserving them. We, therefore, need to find ways to curb the food wastage percentage. It uses the law of increasing numbers. Companies can take advantage of this to optimize waste, improve storage facilities, transportation, and many more in a bid to curb waste. Harvest technologies and packaging is crucial.

Jude believes that controlling storage and transportation is important. The education of people in the supply chain can also help prevent waste. Most solutions are AI-based and so traceability technology is needed to improve the operations and reduce inefficiencies. The use of AI for analytics also helps in forecasting and planning instead of overproducing. Innovative packaging is also important in helping the consumer in being more conscious. This improves dynamic pricing for example on perishable goods.

How do we go beyond price, whilst educating the consumer about how to avoid food waste?

Panelists agree that we must ensure people are buying more organic food, changing consuming behaviours to more sustainable and nutritious foods. We must also encourage the use of applications that help people to be nutrition-conscious leading to 

sustainability is becoming a necessity and not a trend.

Changing the approach to nutrition, Consumers should become conscious buyers and different stakeholders have to be involved in eliminating food waste that leads to insecurity to support the UN goals. 

How do we address food security, nutrition, and waste in the years to come?

First, technology is key and so, companies and startups need funding to be able to use it effectively. Testing is also important to make sure techniques are viable.

Key stakeholders have to be consulted extensively to help implement these technologies.

The UAE has very high ambitions in going ahead in the rankings of the Global Food Security Index. In light of this, we all have a role to play. The role of regulators is vital, and authorities can play an active part however consumers have an equal responsibility of supporting the national vision by educating themselves and by changing harming inherited commercial behaviours. 

Moreover, financing support is key and investors should turn their attention towards startups and companies producing innovative solutions to support the change towards food sustainability.

Least but not last, an important component remains the nutrition and sustainability education, which should be implemented from an early age so that the next generation can develop a greener mindset from the very start.

Consumers, startups and governments together can achieve the National Food Security Strategy of the UAE. We all need to do our part to move everything forward.