Coverage of SIAL in the National Newspaper
UAE bid to boost local farming amid food worries
Megan Detrie, Writer
Last Updated: Nov 9, 2010
ABU DHABI // GCC ministers will hold a summit in the capital this month to discuss creating an integrated strategy to ensure that the region has enough to eat.
They will meet at SIAL, the world's largest international food trade exhibition and conference, which runs from November 22-24 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
SIAL Middle East will bring together 300 exhibitors from more than 30 countries, and will take place concurrently with the fourth International Date Palm Festival.
The event includes a GCC ministerial forum to to discuss food safety and security. Rashid Mohamed al Shariqi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), hopes the forum will create a "vision for permanent joint work towards food security and safety".
It will explore common standards for assessing potential problems with the food supply, such as recalls, and emergency responses to sudden shortages or price volatility.
World food prices are now just below the peak of the 2008 food crisis, when prices rose by 30 per cent.
With a regional population expected to reach 480 million by 2030, "the food crisis lurches behind us menacingly", Mr al Shariqi said.
The region imports about 85 per cent of its food. Its market is worth more than Dh114 billion. Imports cost the UAE alone around Dh11 billion a year, and Saudi Arabia, the region's largest food importer, more than Dh62 billion.
Food security has become a hot topic in the Emirates. Last month the Abu Dhabi Executive Council approved a plan to dramatically boost local farming, including meat, vegetables and aquaculture. The ADFCA also plans to create international partnerships.
Mohammed al Reyaysa, the authority's communications director, said the aim was to ensure alternative sources of food in case of an unforeseen supply problem.
The conference may also be an opportunity to find new suppliers. Nine country pavilions will be set up at the exhibition in the hope of strengthening trade ties between the region and elsewhere.
Representatives from Argentina, China, Thailand, Turkey and the United States, among others, will be present.
The keynote address will come from Jacques Diouf, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. He will be joined by Fawzi al Sultan, the chairman of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
"The UN's presence shows support and international recognition of the forum," Mr al Reyaysa said.
Beyond encouraging collaborations, organisers hope SIAL Middle East will help to diversify the national economy.
"We need to assess the expansion possibilities of the food industry and develop export potential across the region," Mr al Shariqi said.
The event will allow food professionals, companies and government officials to meet and learn more about international practices and products.
"There is a unique opportunity for visitors to source and introduce new products," Richard Hease, chairman of Turret Media, one of the organisers, said.
Mr al Reyaysa said the event would also be a chance to take UAE dates to an international audience. More than 30 date producers and buyers will be in attendance.
SIAL, the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire, is an international network of professional food trade events that began in Paris in 1964. This month's event is its first in the Middle East.
SIAL exhibition seeks to secure food supplies
Megan Detrie, Writer
Last Updated: Nov 22, 2010
ABU DHABI // The capital will be touted this week as possible host of the world's largest date exhibition.
Organisers of the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (SIAL) are hoping to raise the international profile of the date industry, and to create an integrated strategy for regional food security.
As the world's largest international food trade exhibition and conference makes its debut today, SIAL Middle East hopes to position itself as a major date expo, also.
Organisers say that in five years, their conference "will be an event that is not to be missed by date buyers from US or Australia", according to the SIAL Middle East director, Fadi Saad.
This year's conference will run until Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec). Currently, about 27 date producers are exhibiting there.
Egypt is the top date producer globally, but does not export. Saudi Arabia and Iran are top exporters, but are not as easily accessible to foreign buyers, said Mr Saad.
The UAE has the highest rates of export for some date varieties and import for other varieties.
"Abu Dhabi is the ideal solution to host the biggest event on dates," he added.
In addition to raising the profile of Abu Dhabi, the conference aims to establish a new system to prepare the region for the interruption of food supply channels, Saad said. It will bolster domestic food production by encouraging new factories and improving agricultural intelligence, he said.
"We're also looking at establishing pre-alert stations throughout the region," he said.
The pre-alert system would address what to do in case of environmental disasters, such as "if there was another volcanic eruption in Iceland, making three-quarters of supermarket shelves in the UAE empty", he said.
The region imports about 90 per cent of its food, with a market worth more than Dh114 billion. Imports alone cost the UAE about Dh11bn a year, and Saudi Arabia, the region's largest food importer, more than Dh62bn.
This week's event includes a GCC ministerial forum to discuss food safety. Security ministers from Romania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan also will be involved in the talks.
According to Mohamed al Reyaysa, the communications director of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, a co-ordinated policy on food safety encourages trade regionally and globally.
Food price rises begin to bite in UAE
Last Updated: Nov 23, 2010
A Jordanian man pours olive oil pours in a factory.
Mohammad abu Ghosh / AP Photo
The steep rise in global food prices is squeezing small independent retailers in the UAE who do not have the financial resources to weather the storm, say industry insiders.
It is also hampering the long-term growth of the country's food retail sector.
Alaa el Din Hassan Moussa, the senior economic researcher at the Department of Economic Development, said the increase in the price of foodstuffs such as flour had eroded smaller retailers' ability to purchase stock and restricted consumers' spending power.
"The sales for these vendors will decrease," Mr Moussa said at the SIAL Middle East food industry conference in Abu Dhabi yesterday. "At the same time, the amount of supplies in the market will decrease and because these traders won't provide these goods it means the price could rise."
It is the latest sign that the rise in global commodity prices is starting to bite in the region. After reaching record high prices in 2008, the cost of foodstuffs began to drop, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its index, which takes into account meat, dairy, cereals, oils and sugar, fell almost 35 per cent to 139 in February last year from 213.5 in June 2008. Since then it has risen 42 per cent to 197.1 last month. The cost of wheat, however, has been on a steep ascent because of drought in exporting countries and a ban on wheat exports by Russia.
The benchmark US wheat price averaged US$291 a tonne, 37 per cent higher than it was a year ago and 60 per cent higher than at the start of the season in July, the Food and Agriculture Organisation says.
And food producers in the UAE, such as Al Rawabi, are starting to feel the effects.
Ahmed Eltigani al Mansouri, the general manager of the dairy producer based in Dubai, said the rising price of commodities such as soybeans, which is fed to its cows, was hitting the bottom line. It is also facing higher transport costs due to the rise in petrol prices and retailers looking for discounts. These factors have pushed Al Rawabi to ask the Ministry of Economy to raise prices, he said. Al Rawabi aimed to raise the price of each one litre bottle of milk by 50 fils but the request has been denied, he said.
"There is big resistance in the Ministry of Economy to increase the price ï¿½ So you have to keep your costs down," he said on the sidelines of the SIAL event. "But how can you keep your prices down if the commodities go up?," he said.
Retail sales in the UAE are forecast to grow by 3.6 per cent this year and 7.2 per cent next year but higher commodity prices may stifle growth in the food sector, said Mr Moussa.
Saleem VI, the group general manager of Emke Group, which owns Lulu Hypermarkets, said the company tried to keep the prices stable but he anticipated consumers would feel the ripple effects of global commodity prices for certain products, such as rice, within six months.
"The prices are going up a little bit, maybe up to 5 per cent," he said.
The UAE is particularly vulnerable to price swings because it is heavily dependent on imports. The country imports 85 per cent of foodstuffs at a cost of Dh11 billion (US$2.99bn) annually. In turn, the UAE Government is in the process of setting up a strategic food reserve to counter the effects of fluctuating commodity costs and in case of emergencies. The Ministry of Economy has said it planned to have a strategic reserve of 14 essential commodities.
Battle to sell Middle East dates to western market
Megan Detrie, Writer
Last Updated: Nov 23, 2010
Kareem, who harvests dates for a living, demonstrates how to cut a date tree at the festival being held at Adnec. This is done to preserve the tree so it can yield a maximum amount of harvest.
Lee Hoagland / The National
Dates would need a huge branding makeover to boost their appeal to American and European markets, industry experts said.
Misinformation about dates was pervasive in the West, said Charlene Rainey, of the Date Research Institute in Washington DC.
In the US, dates are considered processed and dried rather than fresh, which affects their nutritional labelling regulations. Denmark classifies dates as a candy.
"Dates aren't dried fruit at all, they are actually the lowest moisture fresh fruit," she said. Dates have a moisture content of 30 per cent.
Ms Rainey was speaking as part of a date market workshop at Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (Sial) Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, which runs until tomorrow.
The battle has only begun. The institute has partnered with the Whole Fruit Coalition to petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change how fresh fruit is regulated in the US.
"We'll hold workshops defining whole fruits, and make sure that dates fall within the category," she said. The institute is also holding workshops with the US Agriculture Department to change where dates are presented in the food pyramid, an important dietary guide.
Sugar has become a hot topic in the fight against obesity. The American Heart Association recently released a report that advised consumers to avoid refined and brown sugars, as well as dried fruit.
The body processes the sugar in dates along with fibre, which slows the sugar from going into the bloodstream. Dates are also rich in heart healthy antioxidants. These factors, Ms Rainey said, meant dates were a healthy way for people to digest sugars.
"Everything ten years ago was about fat and heart disease, the new research is all about sugars," Ms Rainey said. Now was the time for date marketers to approach the US and western markets, she said, before they became misbranded.
The Date Research Institute has begun work on changing public opinion. Ms Rainey has spoken at dietician conventions. Articles about the benefits of dates have appeared in health industry newsletters, and media outlets such as the Food Network are considering showcasing dates as an alternative ingredient to sugar. A targeted approach has worked for other fruits. Research and marketing carried out on the benefits of pomegranates saw consumption rates rise 10 times and "now there's worldwide consumption", Ms Rainey said.
The key, she said, was accessing American markets. If dates were popularised in the US, European markets would follow suit.
Western markets did not carry Middle Eastern dates, said Hadi Halabi, a regional marketing consultant for the Societa Interbancaria per I'Automazione.
Unfocused marketing strategies and bureaucratic red tape have stifled manufacturers' attempts to export beyond the region. "All of the attempts so far have lacked a clear understanding of the market psychology in the US, said Mr Halabi.
Dr Samir al Shakir, a consultant for Palm and Dates Global Technology, assisted a company in setting up date exports to the US but was frustrated with the red tape.
The Date Palm Institute is looking to partner with regional date producers to help firms. The institute also wants to attract more funding for research.
Improvements needed to happen at home as well, said Dr al Shakir.
"We have enough of a quantity to export, but we need to improve quality," he said, adding that the Emirates only produces 10 per cent of dates in the region.
Ministers agree on food security plan
Megan Detrie, Writer
Last Updated: Nov 24, 2010
Jacques Diouf, left, the director general of the UNï¿½s Food and Agriculture Organisation at SIAL yesterday with Fawzi al Sultan, the chairman of the International Food Policy Institute.
Ravindranath K / The National
ABU DHABI // GCC ministers pledged to develop national and regional food security policies at a major summit in the capital yesterday, amid warnings of a future shortage of water and higher crop prices.
The ministers agreed on the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Food Security for Gulf Co-operation Council Countries, which emphasised the importance of agriculture and food security strategies, at the first Middle East edition of Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (SIAL).
They pledged to a set of recommendations meant to improve co-operation and develop policies that could cope with a sudden interruption of food supplies.
The ministers announced their intent to create an integrated monitoring system for food inspections, as well as an early warning system for price changes.
The Gulf nations plan to improve co-operation with international bodies such as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on food security matters.
The agreement also called for national and regional seed banks, and common agricultural policies.
The shifting approach to agriculture was in "the mutual interests" of the region, said Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, the Minister of Environment and Water.
Abu Dhabi had recently announced plans to reduce water usage in agriculture by up to 40 per cent by 2013, as well as modernise local farms to increase production. Yesterday's declaration comes at a time when food prices are soaring faster than the peak rate of the 2008 food price crisis.
One difference from 2008, however, is that there are 100 million tonnes more food in world reserves, Jacques Diouf, the director general of the FAO, said.
"We're concerned because despite efforts to calm markets, prices have gone up," Mr Diouf said.
The Gulf, which imports up to 90 per cent of its food, is particularly vulnerable to instability.
"At [Middle East North Africa] level, we're going to be facing increasing risks," Fawzi al Sultan, the chairman of the International Food Policy Institute (IFPI), said.
The declaration was a strong first step, said Mr al Sultan, adding "now what is needed is more research and information before the governments can move forward".
According to the IFPI, the world's water resources will have depleted 50 per cent by 2050. In water-scarce regions such as the Gulf, the agriculture sector must change its approach, Mr al Sultan said.
Most of the farms in the region are small holdings that need access to more climate-suitable seeds, and private-sector investment, he said.
The IFPI, an organisation backed by the World Bank, estimates that crop production in the region, which accounts for 90 per cent of water usage, will decrease 11 per cent by 2050.
GCC countries will focus on increasing research and technology to improve the agriculture sector's water efficiency. They will also encourage partnerships between the public sector and private investment for farming and food manufacturing.
"These are the steps that need to be taken, in terms of encouraging investors and in investing in new technology and research," Mr al Sultan said.
Saudi Arabia is already paving the way for private investment in farms abroad through a fund it launched last year.
In the past, the country had been criticised for growing water-intensive wheat, but it is now encouraging farmers to move away from thirstier crops.
Wheat is imported and sold at heavily subsidised prices, making it "economically unfeasible for local production", said Fahad Balghunaim, the Saudi Arabian agriculture minister, on the sidelines of the summit.
Jenaan to plant $500m venture
Megan Detrie, Writer
Last Updated: Nov 25, 2010
Jenaan Investment owns and leases properties in Egypt and Sudan, as well as leasing land in Tanzania, Ethiopia and the US.
Asmaa Waguih / Reuters
Jenaan Investment, a privately owned company based in Abu Dhabi, plans to invest US$500 million (Dh1.83 billion) in the next three years developing its agriculture ventures abroad.
Jenaan has already spent $500m acquiring land abroad. It owns and leases properties in Egypt and Sudan, as well as leasing land in Tanzania, Ethiopia and the US. The contracts have 30-year, renewable leases.
Jenaan plans to spend the next five years developing its locations and then "we will look to expand", said Ahmed al Falasi, a board member of Jenaan.
Jenaan began growing animal feed in Egypt but is now also producing dill, wheat, maize and potatoes.
"In Egypt, for example, the farmers there didn't used to feed animals alfalfa," said Mr al Falasi. "Now they are taking more than 50 per cent of [alfalfa] production at market price."
Egypt is also among the world's biggest importers of wheat, consuming an average of 14 million tonnes of the cereal a year.
Launched in 2003, Jenaan has acquired 20,000 hectares in Sharq al Owainat, Egypt, 30km from the border with Sudan and 250km from the border with Libya. The company chooses arid areas that are unused by the local population, Mr al Falasi said.
In Sudan, Jenaan is developing more than 40,500ha.
"We still didn't develop all of our land," said Mr al Falasi.
He stressed the importance of investing in local infrastructure, adding that Jenaan had built houses, schools and clinics near its farms. The agricultural technology used to develop its projects, he said, was imported from the US and Europe.
"We hire people and teach them, we give people their technology," he said.
Mr al Falasi said lower labour costs made farming abroad an attractive option.
"You need a lot of people and we don't have any of these experienced people [in the UAE]," he said.
Private investment is urgently needed in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
As the keynote speaker at the first Middle East edition of the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (SIAL) event in Abu Dhabi this week, Mr Diouf stressed the importance of increasing private investment in agriculture.
The UN estimates an extra $70bn a year will have to be invested if the world is going to have enough food for its population in 2050.
The Gulf countries, which import about 90 per cent of their food, have been key players in developing land abroad. Food prices are increasing at a faster rate than before the previous peak in 2008.
One difference from 2008, however, is that there is 100 million tonnes more food in world reserves today, said Mr Diouf.
Imports alone cost the UAE about Dh11bn a year and Saudi Arabia, the region's largest food importer, more than Dh62bn.
Saudi Arabia is already paving the way for private investment through the King Abdullah initiative for Saudi agricultural investment abroad, which it launched last year.