New Harvests In The Desert

  • From: Think.
  • Published: September 19, 2013
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Scarce water supplies and a lack of usable agricultural land mean the states of the Arabian Gulf have long relied on imports for the majority of their food. But with massively growing populations and uncertainty over the price of staples, can these countries achieve the seemingly impossible – and feed themselves? Written by Burhan Wazir

In the tumultuous early part of 2008, as Merrill Lynch, American International Group, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae floundered and Lehman Brothers began to slide into the ice-cold waters of bankruptcy, another crisis was taking shape. In countries across the world, the cost of food began to spike. The international price of wheat doubled from February 2007 to February 2008. The market value of rice reached its highest level for a decade. The cost of milk and meat rose twofold.

The soaring prices provided many governments with a dangerous reminder of how limited was their control over global food patterns and their accompanying consequences. The cost of food had already sharply risen over the previous two years. Between 2006 and 2008, the price of soy beans rose by 107 percent, corn by 125 percent, wheat by 136 percent and rice by 217 percent.

Faced with the worrying prospect of more dramatic increases, food exporters introduced emergency measures to safeguard domestic supplies. Major rice producers such as China, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia instituted export bans on crops. Several other nations, including Argentina, Russia and Serbia, either imposed high tariffs or blocked the export of wheat altogether, further increasing the cost to net importing countries.

The effects of these isolationist practices were disastrous. As millions were pushed into famine and poverty, riots and demonstrations erupted in Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Senegal and Somalia. In Argentina, tomatoes became more expensive than meat. In Panama, the government began bulk buying rice at peak market prices, reselling stocks to the public at a loss at newly opened food kiosks. Ten thousand workers rioted near Dhaka, Bangladesh, while in Burkina Faso unrest broke out in the country’s second and third largest cities as food costs increased by 65 percent.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the crisis created an additional 75 million hungry people. Even the fabled food mountains of the European Union appeared to have vanished overnight as Italians took to the streets in Milan and Rome to protest against rising pasta prices.

For most of the 2000s, the world had been consuming more food than it was producing. Stockpiles had been exhausted – in 2007, surpluses fell to 61 days’ worth of global consumption. Weather patterns were also interrupted; extended droughts in Australia, as well as Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, strangled the rice supply chain. Increased investment in ethanol production, a reaction to the $100-a-barrel price of oil, caused the price of grain to soar.

Many consumers discovered that food was susceptible to a similar speculative bubble to that which had punctured the US housing boom. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission revealed that Wall Street funds controlled 20-50 percent of futures contracts on commodities such as corn, wheat and cattle. Volatility ensured large swings in prices, damaging a fragile ecosystem which had traditionally protected the mechanisms of farming.

Disruption To Supply
In the oil producing economies of the Gulf, the food crises of 2007 and 2008 took on an immediacy not witnessed since the shortages around the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956. For months, shelves in large international chains such as Carrefour and Spinneys were intermittently empty as the supermarkets suffered from disruptions to imports of flour and rice.

Prices of staple foodstuffs such as vegetable oil, bread and milk rose. Groceries ran short of bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers; neighborhood bakeries increased the price of rotis and other flatbreads. There were reports of Asian laborers returning from annual leave in Pakistan and India with sacks of basmati rice and kegs of vegetable oil. In Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the average weekly shopping bill rose by 30-50 per cent.

A 2012 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, Beyond the Arab Awakening, concluded that food security is a “serious challenge to the region”. An overwhelming dependency on food imports, a reliance on foreign financial exchanges, rising demand from increasing populations, limited agricultural potential and the scarcity of water meant that “food security has deteriorated in most countries in the region as a result of the global food crises in 2007-08 and 2010-11”.

“Looking back, the food crises, for the first time, changed the attitudes of many Gulf leaders,” says Benno Boer, the Ecological Sciences Advisor, Arab Region, for UNESCO. Boer, who has lived and worked in the Gulf for 25 years, says rice and grain shortages demonstrated the precariousness of the food cycle. “Until 2007, Gulf countries had relied on their oil wealth to feed their citizens. Suddenly, the dominant thought that food could always be purchased in an emergency was upended. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Riyadh, the idea of long-term food security became as paramount as national security.”

Thirty years ago, achieving food security for the tribal populations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates was as elementary as securing reliable stocks of dates and camel meat.

The Gulf countries, however, have gained more than 13 million residents over the past eight years. Figures for 2011 put the total number of expatriates and locals in the region at 46.8 million, and that is expected to rise to 50 million by the end of 2013. The influx has placed a strain on both food imports and already meager water supplies. As these countries’ urban populations have multiplied, driven by ambitious social and cultural expansion plans and by the influx of Western white-collar workers and South Asian labor, the fast, cheap and convenient availability of food has become of critical concern.

How Qatar is preparing to provide for itself

Qatar National Food Security Programme advocates a number of key solutions to reverse the country’s imports cycle:

- Building a solar park in southern Qatar to take advantage of the region’s high irradiance levels (the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area)
- Harnessing wind power from offshore locations to drive electrical turbines
- Smart grids to more efficiently manage energy distribution
- Reusing waste from industry for seawater desalination
- Creating a new strategy to deal with the country’s depleted freshwater supplies
- Treating waste water to supplement the supply – the processed water will additionally help grow fodder for animals
- Investigating ways to reduce the amount of water wastage through irrigation of Qatar’s farms
- Finding ways to use new crop rotation technologies and controlled environment production
- Increasing the production of green fodder for livestock and dairy industries
- Utilizing hydroponics to alter Qatar’s food security efficiency. Every possible form of this technology will be encouraged as a way to preserve water
- Overhauling existing livestock farms by instituting new domestic feed production techniques and developing modern feed lots
- Developing a national strategy to monitor fish stocks and examine how they are affected by climate change.
- Establishing new fish farming in areas such as the coastal town of Ras Matbakh
- Building an agro-industrial park for food processing and packaging to take advantage of the country’s expanding transport infrastructure
- Expanding Qatar’s storage facilities to ensure a constant supply of raw materials to the processing industry
- A well coordinated and integrated food safety management system

“When we talk about food security, what we really mean is 1,500 calories a day,” explains David Roberts, Director of the Royal United Services Institute in Doha. “In the Gulf, those 1,500 calories have to cater to the tastes of a large number of nationalities: rice for South Asians, flour for people from the Middle East. And these Gulf countries have to hold onto the people who are building the cities. In the case of your Western expats, their diets are more specialized – I call it the ‘cherry tomato test’. They’re mobile. They will leave here if their diets are whittled down.”

The food security matrix, however, doesn’t exist in isolation. The Gulf’s booming populations bring incredible opportunities and equivalent challenges – for retail food suppliers. Out of a combined consumer spend in the Gulf of $300 billion, food is the largest segment, totaling $83 billion in 2012 – an annual figure expected to rise to $106 billion in the next five years, according to a study published last March by global management consultancy AT Kearney. While large outlets such as Carrefour and Spinneys will likely continue to dominate the Gulf market, this demand, combined with upwardly evolving consumer behavior, has propelled a major expansion by smaller, regional retailers such as Panda and Lulu, which opened 100 stores between 2009 and 2012.

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Two of the major obstacles to food security in the Gulf are scarce water supplies and a lack of usable agricultural land. Qatar, which imports 90 percent of its food, employs desalination to satisfy a daily demand of 1.2 million cubic meters of water. Fresh water supplies have been depleted by 85 percent. In an emergency, the country’s current reserves, stored in man-made tanks, would last approximately 1.8 days at the current rate of consumption.

Efforts At Innovation
The disappearance of freshwater sources is having an equally alarming effect on the Gulf’s already stretched farming industry. In Abu Dhabi, farmers now face a curb on their use of groundwater as dwindling supplies reach a tipping point. Five decades ago, water supplies were easily accessible and usually discovered a meter below ground level. Because of overconsumption and waste, the same supplies are now replenished so slowly as to render them non-renewable.

While agriculture accounts for the majority of Abu Dhabi’s groundwater use, most of the emirate’s potable water, produced at desalination plants, is being squandered by private users.

Government investigators at Abu Dhabi’s Regulation & Supervision Bureau last year calculated that of the 650 million gallons produced daily in 2011, only 150 million gallons a day returned to the sewage treatment system. The remainder was thought to have gone on watering gardens, parks, filling swimming pools and washing cars and driveways.

“By far the biggest obstruction to food security is water scarcity,” says Kenneth Britton Marcum of the Department of Aridland Agriculture at United Arab Emirates University.

“This limits the use of the soil, inhibits the growth of produce and restricts the livestock industry. In the Gulf region, there is an abundance of brackish water, which is heavy with salt. Freshwater, which is used for farming, is produced mainly in desalination plants, which require a huge amount of energy.”

In Qatar, where the annual average rainfall recorded from 1972-2005 was roughly 80 millimeters, the latter months of 2012 provided yet another reminder of the country’s complicated food matrix. Last October, Saudi Arabia banned the export of poultry and potatoes – of which it is a key supplier to neighboring Gulf countries – owing to poor stocks and a growing local population. Across supermarkets in Doha, fresh chicken was in short supply for the next three to four months.

Such pressing concerns demand innovative solutions. Qatar’s National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) is tasked with upending the country’s food import calculus. Within 11 years, QNFSP aims to reduce current food import levels from 90 percent to 10 percent. To achieve this, QNFSP has presented the GCC’s most comprehensive plan to re-engineer a nation’s food supply system. The 900-page blueprint, backed by a government grant of $25 billion, extols a fossil fuel-free future, new desalination plants and solar and greenhouse energy, as well as a focus on local produce.

“We have been working on a national plan since 2008,” says Jonathan Smith, Head of Communications and Public Engagement. QNFSP is not an implementer: the strategy calls for strong links with the private sector.
“We’re looking to see how we can help the private sector with innovation. At the core is international trade and investment, domestic production, marketplace and strategic storage, and reserves.”

In recent years, several Gulf countries, mindful of food spikes, have begun investing in agricultural businesses in Africa, South Asia and Australia. In Qatar, the state-owned Qatar Investment Authority created a private company, Hassad Food, to orchestrate farm deals beyond its borders. Hassad Food has focused its attention on poorer nations such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Sudan, leasing farmland in exchange for upgrading infrastructure.

Another avenue currently being tested in the Gulf is the use of halophytes, naturally occurring plants or crops which can be raised in very salty water. In the case of Doha, halophytes could be grown near seas, mangrove swamps and marshes. The resulting plants could be fit for human consumption – and feed livestock. “Halophytes could form part of the solution to Qatar’s food security issues,” says Muhammad Ajmal Khan, Professor at the Department of International Affairs at Qatar University. “There is an increasing body of practical research which indicates halophytes are particularly nourishing. One exciting area also points to their evolution as possible sources of biofuels.”

Allocating $25 billion to secure a nation’s food supply is a relatively modest undertaking for Qatar. One comparison is the cost to the country of sports infrastructure. Last year, it was poised to spend $150 billion on new stadiums, roads and hotels ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. According to US consulting firm Deloitte, that figure has since doubled to over $300 billion.

Smith says countries such as Qatar could, in theory, become more self-sufficient with some basic local re-engineering of the food chain. “From the outset, we can produce 40 percent of our food with better local practices. Better use of water, better water efficiency and better crop selection would make a considerable difference. We should help the farmers get to the technology they need. Vocational and technical innovation comes out of that. Look at the next 100 years of food production – the world needs a state like Qatar to step up. If a dryland nation like Qatar can make significant changes, it could innovate food production around the rest of the world.”

Burhan Wazir is Editor of Qulture.com. A former Editorial Manager of Doha Film Institute, he was also previously Editor of The National on Saturday, Abu Dhabi.

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