Qatar's next big purchase: A farming sector

The oil-rich, water-poor Gulf state has been investing overseas agriculture to food access.

Qatar agriculture 311 (photo credit: FADI AL-ASSAAD)
Qatar agriculture 311
(photo credit: FADI AL-ASSAAD)
DUBAI - Qatar's energy resources have given it one of the world's highest per capita incomes, a futuristic urban skyline and enough clout to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. But its wealth may not be enough for the arid state to achieve an even more ambitious goal: becoming largely self-sufficient in food.
Like other oil-rich, water-poor Gulf states, Qatar has been investing in large areas of farmland overseas to ensure access to food supplies. The agricultural arm of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, Hassad Food, has bought land in Sudan and Australia, and has announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on agricultural projects in countries including Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey and Ukraine.
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But in contrast to the other Gulf states, Qatar also aims to produce most of its food domestically, by spending massively to boost crop yields and convert semi-desert into agricultural land.
Qatar's Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani issued a decree this year to organize the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP), tackling "one of the most pressing challenges that Qatar is facing."
"Today, there are 1,400 farms in Qatar and they will increase to 3,000 farms with the new plan," said Fahad Bin Mohammed al-Attiya, the QNFSP's chairman.
"We anticipate that domestic food production, if new technologies are applied and the efficiency system enforced, can easily reach 60 percent of our market needs. We anticipate that domestic demand can be met by 60 to 70 percent."
Qatar, like the five other wealthy Gulf states, imports up to 90 percent of its food requirements. It has a population of about 1.7 million people, an estimated 20 percent of them Qatari citizens and most of the remainder foreign workers.
Attiya said implementation of the food security program would start in January 2014, after a period of preparation. "The implementation period is 10 years. By 2024 we should have a fully operating system."
It is a seductive vision, and Qatar's vast wealth as the world's top liquefied natural gas exporter will allow it to mobilise the best technology and equipment. But many economists and agricultural experts say Qatar's plans do not make economic sense - and that there is little need for them, given the small size of the population.
"They don't have that much land they can put into production; much of it is desert. And Qatar has a very small population," said Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
"They import almost the entire cereals that they need for domestic consumption, something like 200,000 tonnes a year, which they cannot really produce. What they produce domestically is minimal. I don't really see much prospect."
Abbassian suggested the country might be better off focusing its investment on agricultural land in more temperate climates.
"Given the size of the country and the amount of imports which is rather modest, I would be surprised if it's really such a need to resort to such an investment, which is far more capital- and labor-intensive," he said. "Why would they do that rather than purchasing land globally?"
Experts question soundness of domestic agriculture plans
Qatar's environment is hostile to agriculture, characterized by extreme heat, water scarcity and high soil salinity. Average precipitation in depth is just 74 millimeters  per year, compared to the United Kingdom's 1,220 mm, FAO data shows. Only about 1 percent of Qatar's total land area of 11,590 square kilometers is arable, according to the FAO.
Also, many experts do not see a strong need for Qatar to increase its food security. Although it is located in a volatile region of the world, its huge foreign currency reserves and comparatively small population mean it could probably arrange adequate new sources of food imports fairly easily in an emergency.
"When designing their food security strategies, countries with relatively low agricultural potential such as Qatar may be better advised to look beyond fostering domestic agricultural production," said Clemens Breisinger, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
"Given Qatar's low levels of food insecurity risk and low agricultural potential, it is important to carefully assess the opportunity costs of the investments planned under the QNFSP and to potentially consider alternative options for a food-secure Qatar, and a more food-secure world," he said.
In 2008, Saudi Arabia abandoned a push to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat, concluding that it was simply too expensive and wasteful in using domestic water resources. The country now plans to be 100 percent reliant on imports of wheat by 2016.
Mahendra Shah, food security adviser to the UN and director of international planning at Aquiess Rainaid, a company which develops rainfall technology to fight drought, said the drive to produce wheat domestically using underground water had caused environmental damage in Saudi Arabia.
"The underground water reservoirs are saline and severely depleted. This is an example of an ecological disaster that will take decades to recharge and clean up the aquifers."
But Qatar has shrugged off the example of its larger neighbor, showing the same ambition and faith in its financial power that led it to make other controversial but ultimately successful investments, including its World Cup bid, its creation of international television broadcaster Al Jazeera, and its backing of the rebel side during last year's Libyan revolution.
Fruits and vegetables will be dominant crops in Qatar
Qatar's farming methods include open-field agriculture, greenhouse production, and hydroponics, a soil-less culture technology which uses less water and land and can yield up to 10 times the crop grown in an open field.
"The basket of products has to be diverse," the QNFSP's Attiya said. "The products will be mainly fruits and vegetables, and we're looking at cereals as well, fodder, livestock and fisheries."
One of the prototype farms, the Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC), is located in the desert a short drive from Qatar's capital Doha.
"We are producers of vegetables, seasonal flowering plants and outdoor plants. We have one of the largest landscape projects in Qatar, with 40 hectares of land," said Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, SAIC's agriculture sector manager.
SAIC, which started vegetable production in 2001, is growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and other vegetables through a combination of greenhouses, hydroponic systems and regular farming. It supplies supermarkets and hotels.
"We use artificial soil to produce the vegetables. With this system we can save around 50 percent of water, and water is a very important factor here in Qatar," said Shamardal.
Qatar now produces around 23 percent of its requirement of vegetables. They are grown by 56 percent of the country's farmers and take up 11 percent of its cultivated farm area, according to the QNFSP.
The country's aquifers are already severely depleted, Attiya said. But the QNFSP plans to obtain agricultural water from seawater desalination using solar parks, and only keep aquifers as strategic water reserves.
"Once we have achieved solar desalination, we will ask the farmers to stop using the aquifers," he said.
While Qatar's technology is impressive, however, experts say it will be difficult to apply the techniques to a full range of crops, especially cereals.
"Certain commodities like fish, eggs and poultry can be produced locally with an increased level of self-sufficiency," said food security adviser Shah.
"Aquaculture can be used for fish, controlled environment production for poultry and eggs, but when it comes to cereals, the scale of the water required -- this has to be carefully thought through."
Attiya said total costs for the QNFSP had not yet been calculated. While Qatar does not lack money, it is hoped that private sector involvement will make the program efficient and responsive to consumer demand.
"The funds will come both from the private sector and the public sector. All the regulatory functions, the research and education, policy, legislation and regulation, that will be entirely funded by the state," said Attiya.
"The rest, in terms of the development of the power plant, desalination plant, and all the financing of all the different upgrades of the farms, that will happen by the private sector."Attracting enough private businessmen may be difficult, however, especially if they are restricted in where they can sell their produce under the terms of the QNFSP.
"It is very important to note that the food security plan in Qatar is subject to zero export policy," Attiya said.
"If anything is produced in Qatar, that production cannot be exported for reason of protecting our natural resources. Because of the water involved in producing food, a country like Qatar that is very dry cannot export water through food."