Many Gulf countries have been investing in foreign farmland, mainly in fertile Africa, to serve as their bread basket. But Qatar has recently announced that it was going to boost its own food security and start investing in a master plan to turn 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres) of its own land into farms. The government's Qatar National Food Security Program says its plan is to achieve self-sufficiency using the most modern technological advances to feed its booming population.
At the moment, Qatar, an arid country of some 1.8 million inhabitants jutting off Saudi Arabia into the Gulf, can only produce about 10% of its food needs and is desperately reliant on imports. Greenhouses are a rarity at the moment and they exist only about 1% of cultivated land, according Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
As a first step, Qatar plans to set up 1,400 farms, according to Mohamed Al-Attiyah, chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Program. He said these will use the latest agricultural technology and train more people to work in the agricultural sector to improve productivity.
Currently, only 1.6 % of Qatar is arable land and agriculture only contributes 0.1% to gross national product, according to the FAO. Al-Attiyah noted that existing farms were working at only 10% of their capacity since it suffered from a lack of qualified staff and water shortages. Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, issued a decree calling for a master plan to be ready by 2013 and for full food security to be reached within a decade.
This decree is an important message that demonstrates Qatar's willingness to overcome one of its main challenges," Al-Attiyah said. Pedro Berliner, an expert in dryland agriculture and director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, said this was feasible, but that Qatar faced many obstacles.
Technology has been able to overcome many natural conditions. You can desalinate water, and add fertilizer. You don't even need soil and can grow plants hydroponically. It all depends on the costs," Berliner told The Media Line. "You could grow wheat in a greenhouse, but it would cost about five times what you'd pay on the market.
This also would require a very high degree of technological skill and you have to acquire that or seek out the alternatives and bring in trained foreign workers, Berliner added. Attiyah warned in a recent interview with The Peninsula newspaper in Qatar that climate change and water shortages "could pose a very serious problem for future development.
According to the World Bank, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates import some 90% of the food they need to feed their 40 million-strong population at a cost in 2010 of $25.8 billon. Qatar itself imports some $1.3 billion in food annually.
High dependence on imports makes the GCC food supply very vulnerable and highly dependent on the world food market. In the past, any form of disruption in food imports, either due to policy restrictions by exporting countries or natural calamities has affected the region significantly," according to a recent report by Alpen Capital Investment Bank.
The oil boom brought a population explosion to Qatar and the rest of the Gulf states and food production has not been able to keep pace. Furthermore, food prices and oil prices are interconnected. As oil prices rose so too did food prices. Wealthy Arab states have been trying to create a food pipeline to stave off riots.
In an effort to improve their food security Gulf state countries have been buying up tracts of fertile, but often underutilized land in African countries like Ethiopia, Sudan and Mozambique. Qatar recently leased 400,000 hectares of farmland in Kenya in the Tana River Delta to grow food for home in exchange for a $3.5 billion loan to the government. This "land grab" has raised alarms by these countries who fear they won't be left with any food for their own people.
The announcement by the chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Program to improve domestic food production seems to reflect a little paranoia that in times of crisis, it would not be able to import food for its residents. "This is the opposite of globalization," said Berliner of the Blaustein Institute. "In a global world everyone provides their best product and they are traded around the world so you have what you need. This is going the other way around. It would seem that they do not want to be a ffected by globalization."