Syed Tariq Husain, CEO of Emirates Investments Group, said that robust investment in agricultural research, and development from both the public and private sectors, are vital for the ongoing growth of food industries.
Husain said that the investments need to be made in research, science and technology to lay a foundation for improved agricultural productivity, reduced waste and a healthier and safer food supply.
"Countries such as Saudi Arabia have made mistakes in the past by investing in projects like wheat and cattle farming, which are highly water intensive and not sustainable," Husain said.
"We need to explore alternatives, for example investing in agricultural land abroad or leasing land to a professional who can manage it more efficiently with better practices.
“Middle East and North African countries can succeed in conducting cost-effective policies to achieve sustainable agricultural growth by forming strategic partnerships with countries in Central Asia, North Africa, Pakistan and Turkey."
Husain added that corporate farming in the Middle East only accounts for a small segment of the industry and is currently made up of smaller scale farming with fragmented land holdings.
"If we can move toward corporate farming, have larger farms, have something which is suitable for the geography, then it will attract investors as long as there is a defined, profitable demand for the product,” he said.
Recently, Dubai Trade chief executive Mahmood Al Bastaki said that there should be more of an "internal focus" on local food production in the UAE.
With more than 70% of Dubai’s food imported, and with a growing resident and tourist population likely to increase that percentage, local production falls a far distance short, Al Bastaki told 7Days newspaper.
“Local production is not enough. So you need more importing. More and more." But providing more and more comes at a cost, he said.
"Long term everybody wants to be self-sufficient. But how to be self-sufficient?”
With just 1% arable land, it is expected that Gulf countries will import over US$53bn worth of food by 2020. But while nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have bought up fertile land in countries outside the region, the UAE, according to Al Bastaki, would rather "focus internally rather than internationally”.
Figures from 2011 show that the UAE invested US$258.4 million in food processing and packaging machinery to support the local food industry.
"Increasing local production has many factors. The government is already doing many good things, [such as] supporting farmers financially.”
On top of this, though, Al Bastaki called for more state-of-the-art technology, subsidies on soil and discounted water charges.