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The role of the Arabian Gulf in maintaining food security

With a rapidly growing global population, rising food prices and increasing natural resource scarcity, food security is emerging as one of the most critical challenges facing humanity today which is only poised to intensify in the future

Food security is a universally recognized right of all people in the world. But not everyone fully understands what it means and what is required to achieve it. The World Health Organization defines food security to exist “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Based on this definition, there are several factors that need to be in place to ensure food security.

Firstly, food must be available through domestic production, import or a combination of both. Secondly, people must have access to food. Thirdly, people must consume sufficient quantity and quality of food to be healthy. Fourthly, all these dimensions must be stable, meaning food always needs to be available to individuals and households, despite seasonality and other challenges.

While these four dimensions (availability, access, utilization, and stability) equally influence food security, their sphere of impact is on different stages of the food value chain. Food availability is essential at national and global levels. Access to food is more connected to households, and food utilization is related to the quality and nutritional aspects of food.

With a fast-growing global population, food production must also intensify substantially from less available land due to urban expansion and land degradation, to meet future food needs. This makes food security arguably one of the greatest challenges the world is facing and highlights to the importance of optimizing available land productivity through the efficient utilization of agri-nutrients.


Current state of GCC food security

Food security in the GCC region is relatively high from an international perspective. The percentage of undernourished people in the GCC is just above 5% and the rule of thumb set by FAO considers countries with undernourishment of 5% or less as food secure. Within the region, the food security situation is most critical in Saudi Arabia where about 2.4 million people are undernourished, corresponding to 7% of the total population. In Oman, some 330,000 are estimated to be food insecure which accounts for about 6.8% of total the population. In Kuwait and the UAE between 100,000 and 250,000 people are food insecure, which corresponds to 2.8% and 2.6% accordingly.

According to the Global Food Security Index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, GCC countries are averaging at 31st position globally. The Global Food Security Index presents in depth analysis on how the core pillars of food security, namely food availability, affordability, quality, and safety impact the level of food security in 113 countries globally. The GCC is among the highest-ranking regions globally and has maintained its position for several years. The region’s success is attributed to factors such as low agricultural import tariffs and presence of food safety nets by the governments. Nevertheless, ranking reveals significant disparity in food security across the region with Qatar ranking 13th worldwide – the highest ranking in the region, and Bahrain ranking at 50 globally – which represents the lowest ranking.

The GCC region scored highly on food affordability, with the majority of countries occupying the top 10 ranks, except Bahrain and Oman. High scores in the GCC are attributed to strong government support for food safety net programs, which is an important source of food security for vulnerable families. Additionally, wealthier nations demonstrate strong ability to afford food in combination with low agricultural import tariffs. A different picture is observed in the GCC’s ranking in food availability which measures the sufficiency of a nation’s or region’s food supply, risk of supply disruption, capacity to disseminate food and ability to expand agricultural output. All GCC countries scored exceptionally low compared to their international peers. On average, the GCC occupies the 50th spot globally, out of 113 countries. It is difficult for GCC countries to sustain food production. Additionally, the GCC is highly exposed to climate related natural disasters. In this respect, the region ranks 99th globally out of 113 countries with most of GCC countries falling below the 100th rank. When it comes to food quality and safety, the GCC performance relatively better, being ranked 30th on average from 113 in total. Food diversification in the Arabian Gulf is still not very advanced due to high dependence on starchy foods (cereals, roots), highlighting a need to provide populations with access to more balanced diets to prevent malnutrition. Some of the most significant achievements of the GCC states in the Global Food Security Index include, claiming the 1st position globally in food affordability by Qatar. Kuwait and Qatar were the most improved nations over the past year which allowed Kuwait to climb to the 27th rank and Qatar to the 13th rank globally in 2019.

Role of GCC in agri-nutrients industry

The role of the GCC agri-nutrient industry in global food security is primarily demonstrated in supplying the world with essential nutrients. The GCC is one of the largest producers of agri-nutrient globally, with current production levels of about 16.4 million tons of urea and 3.4 million tons of DAP. Economies of scale and low-cost production makes the region a perfect production hub. The GCC is among the top producing countries globally in the number of key agri-nutrients. For example, in the case of urea, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are among the top 10 biggest producers globally and in the case of DAP, Saudi Arabia is among the top five biggest producers globally.

Since most GCC agri-nutrients are exported overseas it makes more sense to consider some impact analysis at a global level using the global approaches when applicable:

  1. Major producer of agri-nutrients
  2. Responding to increasing demand for agri-nutrients
    • GCC agri-nutrients are distributed through a global sales network with access to all main agri-nutrient consumption regions. GCC agri-nutrient producers export to more than 80 countries and all continents, from Europe to North America, to Asia to Latin America.
  3. Supplying essential plant nutrients
    • The GCC agri-nutrient industry supplies the most important nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, each of which play a key role in plant nutrition. The GCC agri-nutrient industry supplies all these three essential nutrients.
  4. Supporting the world’s growing population
    • Based on our estimate, GCC nitrogen agri-nutrients support almost 5% of the world’s population or about 350 million people. This is up from 2.6% in the beginning of the century in 2000 and about 0.2% in the 1970s.
  5. Supporting increasing food production
    • While the global agri-nutrient industry supported about 2.7 billion tons of production of these main crops (rice, wheat, maze) in 2018, GCC agri-nutrients support about 215 million tons of these crops, which account for 4% of global production. This is up from 0.5% in 1970, and 3% in 2000.
  6. Supporting research and development
    • Researchers in the GCC agri-nutrient industry are developing new strategic technologies, solutions and products to improve existing formulations, some of which are first of their kind in the world. One more important focus area at the moment is the development of intelligent agri-nutrient that is able to respond to signals from crops and release nutrients into the ground in order to meet their specific needs.
  7. Providing stable source of employment
    • The GCC agri-nutrient industry directly employs more than 12,100 people. Based on the latest estimates, each job in the agri-nutrients sector supports about three jobs elsewhere in the GCC region. With the income from these jobs, people and their families are able to access food, achieve stability in food consumption and ensure proper nutrients balance. For all these reasons, supporting jobs is one of the key elements in achieving food security.
  8. Ensuring nutrient management
    • GPCA, together with other industry associations, have popularized a new approach based on 4R nutrient stewardship: the right agri-nutrient at the right rate, at the right time in the right place.

Moving forward

Agri-nutrients’ role in food security pivots around quantity and quality of food production. From one end, it is about increasing production, and improving crop yields, and from another end, agri-nutrients help to maintain soil fertility, soil quality, and provide nutrient security. On individual country levels, national food security strategies have been focused on agriculture and food supply, neglecting the importance of nutrition. This requires collaboration beyond national borders and an international response to help ensure that agri-nutrients (especially within the region) are given special attention to offset this growing concern and ensure a strong relationship between nutrition and economic growth.