GROWING A SOLUTION

Saudi Arabia 2021 | FOOD & AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: FOOD SUPPLY

Despite the serious challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis, Saudi Arabia's food system has been able to maintain resilience and keep the nation fed.

Thanks to the visionary work performed by stakeholders across the country in recent years, the Kingdom has been able to develop a more robust food supply that has successfully weathered shocks presented by the pandemic. Though Saudi Arabia has long been an importer of food items—and with 75% of its food consumption needs being met by imports, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, and the country likely to remain dependent for some years to come—the nation is taking essential steps to safeguard its long-term food security.

Food security has been front and center on the Kingdom's plate in not just recent years but decades. Since the 1970s, Saudi leaders have endeavored to ensure food security for the nation. When a global wheat crisis struck in the mid 1970s, Saudi policymakers inaugurated a plan to reach self-sufficiency in wheat production that saw the government incentivize widespread cultivation via generous price supports. In following decades, however, policymakers recognized that wheat production required too much of the Kingdom's precious water resources, and the state began shifting its focus from wheat to other more sustainable crops. Since learning the lessons provided by wheat, the Kingdom has embarked on an impressive and sustained effort to create, to the extent possible, a truly sustainable food supply.

In seeking food security solutions, Saudi Arabia has been developing innovative initiatives aimed at bolstering the nation's position moving forward. One such initiative has been the development of a new project designed to ensure a steady supply of grains in the coming years. The project has seen the creation of a new commercial entity, the National Grain Company, which is a partnership between two firms central to the nation's food security strategy, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company and the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia. By leveraging the expertise of these two entities, Saudi officials hope the new company can oversee the trade, movement, and storage of various grains between the Kingdom's many export and import partners across the globe and region. The USD110-million initiative hopes to move approximately 3 million tons of grain every year until 2022, at which point capacity will be increased to approximately 5 million tons per year.

Thanks to large-scale investment and a concerted effort, the Kingdom has made substantial gains in numerous areas of the agro-economy. Though much of the nation is covered by desert, fertile regions of the Kingdom have seen the production of numerous food items at sustainable levels, including dates, eggs, milk, and certain vegetables. According to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, Saudi Arabia has surpassed self-sufficiency ratios by 109% for milk and other dairy products, 116% for eggs, 125% for dates, 55% for fish, and 60% for vegetables and poultry. Each of these impressive ratios are the direct result of resolute governmental and private-sector efforts across recent years, and they are one of the key reasons why the Kingdom's food system performed so well during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Ministry and the Saudi Grain Authority and Agricultural Development Fund has also partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN on a variety of initiatives. Together, these partners are working on developing and implementing an effective strategic food reserve program, a food security early warning system, an evidence-based national food loss and waste reduction program, and a framework for Saudi agricultural investments across the globe, according to FAO. Furthermore, the Kingdom and FAO have worked to create a number of sub-initiatives aimed at expanding capacity in other areas, including a program for a fisheries management framework and a national aquatic animal health strategy, among others.

Ever cognizant of the roles technology can play in food security, Saudi officials have articulated a clear interest in leveraging digital solutions and AI to improve food security, including sustainable and environmentally conscious development. As part of this work, the Kingdom has partnered with FAO to host the International Forum on Innovation for Agri-Food Systems to Achieve SDGs. This forum brings together key regional and global stakeholders across government, agriculture, and technology to share and develop innovations in agriculture and food systems, as well as general rural development in the Middle East and North Africa, according to FAO. Water scarcity and climate change are two of the largest threats facing the Kingdom, and efforts to develop new technologies, techniques, and approaches in agriculture will be critical to Saudi Arabia's plans to develop a future-focused and sustainable food system.