Blessing in disguise

Jan. 21, 2020

Qatar, like many other wealthy Gulf states, has imported 90% of its food requirements throughout its history, with no less than 60% of it going through Saudi Arabia and the UAE up until recently. Fully aware of the issue, the government established the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP) in 2008, but it wasn't until June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Egypt launched an economic and political blockade, that the country pushed the pedal to the metal and started a host of initiatives to achieve food self-sufficiency.

In the years following, Qatar has opened new trade corridors, found new international suppliers and partners, and made serious efforts to boost its food production, both at home and abroad. One of the game-changing developments is the 530,000-sqm food security facility at Hamad Port manufacturing and storing rice, raw sugar, and edible oils.
Agriculture in Qatar is inherently limited in scope due to its harsh climate, water constraints, and lack of arable land; however, modern farming techniques have enabled the country to partially overcome these constraints. Moreover, players from both the private and public sectors have invested in large areas of farmland overseas to further bridge the gap. For example, the agricultural arm of Qatar's USD320-billion sovereign wealth fund, Hassad Food, has bought land in Australia and Sudan, and announced plans to invest heavily in agricultural projects in Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, and Ukraine, among others.
Sitting on the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf, Qatar's only maritime gateway to the world is the Strait of Hormuz, which can easily be disrupted by geopolitical events. Considering this, Saudi Arabia was Qatar's primary supply channel for dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables coming from Turkey, Jordan, the EU, and beyond. To fill the gap in the dairy sector, Baldana, Qatar's main dairy producer, imported thousands of cows from the EU, Australia, and the US via Qatar Airways Cargo. Remarkably, Qatar has not only become self-sufficient in dairy but has also started exporting excess supply.
Similar success stories can be seen across the food sector. Self-sufficiency has been reached in fresh poultry and the number of farms producing vegetables and fruit has tripled. The country is even nearly self-sufficient in seafood. While national demand is around 21,000 tons, total production hovers between 15,000-16,000 tons. The gap is set to be covered in the short term with investments in new aquaculture facilities.
Despite all the success, the country has yet to fully overcome the biggest hurdle in its journey toward 100% food self-sufficiency: water or rather, lack of it. For instance, each dairy cow requires an average of 185 gallons of water per day, almost twice the volume used by the average Qatari household. The majority of this water comes from oil- or gas-powered desalination plants, making the situation even worse. Furthermore, fodder production accounts for 50% of the ground water extracted for agriculture.
Although the situation seems bleak (Qatar ranks as the most water-stressed country in the world), the government and private players are taking steps to use resources more efficiently. Local authorities are considering banning the use of groundwater for fodder production by 2025, pushing the industry to use treated sewage water instead.
Additionally, the industry is investing in vertical farming, advanced greenhouse solutions, and hydroponic farming. These smart agricultural methods take the climate and carbon balance into account to help producers overcome obstacles. Case in point is that of Agro, a major vegetable producer whose organic hydroponics operation has led to a 90% reduction in water use.
With a commitment to support the widespread adoption of circular agricultural technologies and practices, Qatar not only hopes to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2030 but also act as an example for other countries, friend or foe.