Moo-ving forward? Qatar’s next big purchase- a farming sector
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.
January 5, 2012 4:10 by Reuters
Attiya said implementation of the food security programme 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 labour-intensive,” he said. “Why would they do that rather than purchasing land globally?”
Qatar’s environment is hostile to agriculture, characterised by extreme heat, water scarcity and high soil salinity. Average precipitation in depth is just 74 milimetres (2.9 inches) 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 kilometres (4,475 square miles) 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 adquate 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 advisor to the U.N. 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 neighbour, 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.
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 (99 acres) of land,” said Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, SAIC’s agriculture sector manager.