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FNC discusses increased protection for UAE farmers from cheaper imports

ABU DHABI // Farmers and members of the Federal National Council called for more measures to protect local food prices from competition with cheap imports.

Experts, however, said that such restrictions, proposed at the FNC meeting on Tuesday, could drastically raise food prices and would not solve the problem of water scarcity.

FNC members had raised complaints from local farmers, who say their products are getting drowned in the market because of imported products sold at low prices.

“We should talk about the post-oil period. The main sources that nationals can benefit from are farming and hunting,” said FNC member Naama Al Sharhan, from Ras Al Khaimah.

“Today, farmers are suffering from a marketing crisis.”

Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said his ministry would continue to support the sale of local produce and address the challenges.

The ministry soon plans to sign an agreement with Carrefour to market local fruit and vegetables. Similar deals have been arranged with LuLu supermarket and union co-ops.

“The local produce is competing with international products,” he said. “I don’t say this from my perspective but from a buyer’s perspective, because really, when consumers find out it’s a local product, they want to buy it.”

Such produce includes zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants. Dr Al Zeyoudi said the ministry has investments in other countries, and dates are being exported to 45 countries.

“We have a plan to increase organic farming,” he said.

“Now all our plans are directed towards that field. This is part of the strategy.”

Organic farming areas covered 45,890 acres last year, compared with only 2,360 acres in 2009, he said. The ministry has also provided farming equipment, including tools for organic and hydroponic farming, at half price. Mrs Al Sharhan argued that during the limited production period between the months of November and June, cheap, low-quality imports continued to overwhelm the market.

She called for a partial ban on imported fruit and vegetables when local production is at its peak.

Abdullah Khalfan, a farmer, described the challenges that he faces when selling his products.

“During the drowning period we are forced to sell a 22-kilogram box of cucumbers for Dh25, which is a great loss for us,” he said. “This is unfair competition, because we have only a few months to produce.”

Moreover, the products are sometimes from war-torn countries, which he said imposed health risks. Expensive farming procedures during the hot season exceed revenues from produce, he said.

But agricultural experts questioned the feasibility of a partial imports ban.

“It’s OK to do that if you’ve got a ready domestic supply,” said Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of Agrisecura.

“But it represents 3 per cent annually of all the produce, so if you ban imports, it might encourage more people to invest in local production, but it won’t solve the problem of water.”

Locally grown produce is usually expensive because it consumes a large amount of water.

“It’s a bit of a contradiction to ban imports because it will increase the cost dramatically on the farmer because of water,” Mr Culpepper said.

“This needs to be clarified publicly. Do you want farmers to be more self-sufficient and pay more of their fair share of the cost, or protect them by taxing or banning imports from the outside?”

Dr Safdar Mohammed, chairman of agribusiness at UAE University, said such restrictions would cause food prices to skyrocket.

“There are only a few farmers here and they don’t produce enough for the local market, so this will hurt the consumer,” he said. “We don’t have enough water to produce, so what will happen?

“At the same time, you’re using scarce water to produce locally, but it’s not the right approach.

“Other countries will find another market, the UAE will have a shortage of vegetables with sky-high prices and consumers will say this isn’t a good policy.”

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The National