Ireland has become the ideal partner for Middle East’s food security objectives

Jim O’Toole
Jim O’Toole
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Consumers in the UAE are spoilt for choice with a diverse range of cuisine available at restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. The ingredients available indicates the eclectic tastes enjoyed by those living here with an increasing number of consumers placing greater importance on food traceability, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) shows that over half of the UAE consumers say the naturalness of the product influences their grocery choices, suggesting that food provenance is now a priority for many.

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Ireland’s producers have long been recognised for premium, high-quality and finest dairy, meat, and prepared food in the world – thanks to their lush green fields, clean air, and plentiful rain. In recent years, however, Irish food has taken on a new directive as consumers around the world become increasingly interested in the source of their food and its impact on their health and the environment. As a result, food provenance has become a key selling point for Irish businesses, resulting in a 45 percent increase in exports to the UAE from Ireland in 2022.

Food supply is, however, dependent on the smooth operation of supply chains. Globally, supply chain shocks and the region’s high dependency on food imports, with countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE importing nearly 80 percent of their dietary requirements, have meant that governments in the region have energised their plans to make their ecosystems more food secure. To meet its food security goals, along with boosting international partnerships, Middle East countries will need to build comprehensive local food systems based on diversified agriculture, and sustainable food production by using modern and adaptive technologies.

Our exports globally have more than tripled from AED 22.07 billion to AED 65.81 billion in the past two decades, making the food sector the largest and most valuable part of our economy – thanks to our commitment to sustainable food production and farm to fork tracking mechanisms. It has helped us become a trusted supplier and trading partner for high-quality, premium food and drinks.

None of these advancements have occurred by accident. Once known for its great famine of the 1840s, “the Emerald Isle” is now recognised for sustainable, climate sensitive agriculture and food production. By working to make our food system integrated and sustainable, Ireland is now an agricultural nation boasting 230,000 jobs and a thriving export industry.

Integral to this progress, that now places Ireland at the top of the Global Food Security Index, is Bord Bia’s Origin Green – the world’s only national food sustainability program that mobilises Ireland’s farmers and food producers to commit to sustainability throughout the supply chain. This minimises the environmental and social impacts of products produced, packaged, and transported, and follows strict sustainable practices. To date, 90 percent of Ireland’s food and drink exports are from Origin Green verified companies.

Despite successes in developing domestic food production capabilities, the UAE and Saudi Arabia accounted for 50 percent of Ireland’s trade within the Gulf region last year. And with the population growth expected to increase to 58 million by 2050, the demand for food and drink imports will continue to surge. The region not only has an increasing expat population causing high demand for high quality Western food and beverage products, but also is conveniently close to Ireland making it easier and more cost-effective for Middle East countries to import. These factors combined with our strong trade relations with Arab countries should be leveraged to meet the food security needs of the region.

The strengthening of ties with the Middle East is especially welcome as it has coincided with Ireland’s relationship with its nearest neighbour, the UK. Since the Brexit Referendum in June 2016, Bord Bia has been preparing for this change and has focused on ongoing engagement at senior level within key retail and foodservice customers to strengthen relationships, to understand the key challenges and to ensure businesses are as prepared as possible, drawing on over 20 years of forward-looking food and drink strategies.

What’s important to remember is the close trading relationship that exists between Ireland and the UK, even after Brexit. The UK remains the largest single country market for Irish food and drink exports, with exports valued at an estimated €5.4 billion in 2022, an increase of 20 percent on 2021 levels. Irish exporters have navigated their way through considerable uncertainty in terms of the new trading environment with the UK, and more recently a rapidly slowing British economy. In fact, 72 percent of Irish food and drink businesses have said they expect to maintain or grow their sales to the UK.

Brexit hasn’t deterred the UK shopper either, with the latest figures indicating 88 percent of UK shoppers remaining as open as ever to choosing food and drink from the ROI. Buying Irish is the equivalent of buying local. Bord Bia is pleased that the positive association British shoppers have with Ireland is now increasingly evident across the Middle East.

Moreover, the world is beginning to take notice of Irish innovative solutions that is restoring traditional agricultural systems, an aspect that was central to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) signed last year with the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine of Ireland to enhance food security. The agreement allows for the exchange of successful innovation and technology-based initiatives or practices to optimise food and water management, promoting foreign investments in sustainable agriculture, facilitating agricultural trade, and knowledge sharing on addressing the critical water, food, and energy nexus.

This year offers even more promise. In line with two of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s top five priorities for the UAE for 2023 (Environment and Sustainability, and Expanding the UAE’s International Economic Partnerships) this coming June, Bord Bia’s Dubai office will host a number of food and drink companies from the UAE and Gulf states on a trip to Ireland for a knowledge sharing programme – which will focus on Origin Green and sustainability practices which are integral to Irish farming systems. Ahead of the UAE preparing to host COP28, we have a golden chance to stir a conversation in the region and make use of relevant platforms such as Gulfood, to share pathways that will help achieve food security.

Feeding the future Middle East is possible; provided there are strong, stable partners and a coordinated effort to bring together farmers, government, civil society, manufacturers, and consumers facilitating partnerships at regional and national levels, encouraging knowledge exchange. We’ll need the collective wisdom and contribution of every single part of the food system to make food security a reality.

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