Qatar imports some 92 percent of its food needs. Domestic production of agriculture comprises mainly vegetables and no grains, and production levels cannot be raised due to depleting ground water reserves, arid soil and harsh weather.

The Qatar National Food Security Programme was launched in 2008 to develop a national master plan for increasing the nation’s food security. Completed and presented to the Government in 2013, the Qatar National Food Security Plan focuses on teaming up with the private sector to boost national capacity for strategic trade and investment, increasing sustainable local production of targeted food items and improving the overall efficiency and operation of the nation’s food system.

Implementation of the National Plan is led by a cross-governmental committee under the direction of the Ministry of Economy and Commerce. The plan to improve food security begins in 2013 and extends to 2030.

Speaking about Qatar’s food security, Jonathan E. Smith, senior adviser at QNFSP, tells bq that it is very challenging to produce 100 percent of Qatar’s food needs domestically because of Qatar’s hot weather, unfertile soil, and lack of rain. He identifies water as the most urgent challenge hindering the expansion of agricultural production in the region.

“As we enter an unprecedented period of international development, competition, population growth and climate change, water availability, quality and efficient use/re-use, is the overwhelming global challenge to agriculture. This challenge is even more pronounced in the more than 60 nations currently classified as “dry land” or “arid.”

According to Smith, producing more food does not lead to food security in Qatar’s case, but “increasing the sustainable production of certain fresh food items such as vegetables and poultry that are either in limited supply regionally or lose quality during transport can go a long way to improving the affordability, availability, nutrition and safety of food in the market.”

Smith adds that by using appropriate practices to produce a targeted range of goods that are suitable in this market, Qatar can produce more than five times more food than it does currently using the exact same amount of land and one-third less water.

Agricultural Engineering and Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University.
Agricultural Engineering and Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University.

Rabi Mohtar, TEES research professor, Biological and Agricultural Engineering and Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University, USA, tells bq what Qatar needs the most is tailored technologies specifically developed for its challenging nature.

He describes food security in dry areas as a portfolio of many dimensions in which foreign investments, local production, and imports are key elements that should be investigated and studied.

Current shortage of fresh products

There used to be live chicken shops in Doha and other parts of the country until the bird flu scare raised its head in Asia and elsewhere some years ago, and the outlets that sold fresh chicken literally disappeared overnight. A couple of years ago there was a shortage of fresh chicken in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its impact was instantly felt here since much of the local requirement for fresh chicken was met through imports from there.

And just last month, in February, the Qatar Chamber, representative body of the private sector, warned that there was a shortage of eggs in Saudi Arabia due to large exports to neighbouring countries and that could send egg prices in Qatar spiraling.

An Arabic daily also carried a report on the shortage of fresh chicken and eggs in the Qatari market and referred to news on unnamed European companies’ intentions to enter the Qatari market at competitive prices sometime this year.

The paper interviewed Dr. Noura Al Maadidi, a Qatari businesswoman, who said: “The shortage in some commodities and food items goes back to the low number of local food projects. The majority of investment projects focus on industries and non-food products in general.

This is what the local authorities concerned with projects and investments need to study. The alternative to importing raw material for local manufacturing should be seriously considered. This would help keep the cost down, which has always been the excuse of some company officials when they wish to raise the prices of their products. While world food prices have seen a significant decline recently, it is surprising to see prices remain unchanged in other Arab and local markets.”

Al Maadidi also said she excited to hear that some foreign companies intended to carry out local projects to serve consumers. “This type of diversity in investment is required, and it will bring positive returns to the local market. Consequently, it will further flourish the economy as consumption generates significant annual revenues.”

The Chamber’s agricultural committee said that Qatar has quite a big poultry company but it was barely able to meet a tenth of local demand since it lacks modern production technology. “So the remaining 90 percent of local demand in Qatar is met through imports,” said the committee.

The head of the committee, Mohamed Al Obaidly, told local media they had submitted a proposal to the authorities concerned to build an Agricultural City that would accommodate some 300 to 400 big hatcheries. These hatcheries would not only be able to cater to the local market but would also be able to export poultry products to neighbouring countries. Al Obaidly, however, said the committee had not heard back from the authorities concerned. He refused to name the authorities when prodded and said that wasn’t necessary in his view.

Food waste statistics

So is true of fresh vegetables many of which are imported, and whose shortages particularly during summer months, lead to sudden price hikes. In winter, local produce comes to the market in abundance so there are no short supplies and that leads to price reductions as well.

The Chamber has long been talking of another Agricultural City that would accommodate agro-based industries. These plans, according to businessmen, have yet to materialize, though.

Local innovation a big contributor

“To begin with, what is needed as far as food security projects and the role of the private sector is concerned, is a law that would encourage businessmen to invest in agricultural production, and protect their interest,” said Ahmed Hassan Al Khalaf, chairman of International Projects Developments Company (IPDC).

“There is no such legislation in the country until now.” And there is a severe lack of basic infrastructure like land, water and electricity for agricultural activities to thrive, Al Khalaf said in comments published by a local daily in January.

He said his family had some 20,000 square metres of land under cultivation and had supplied fresh vegetables to the local market in the past two summer seasons. Plans were afoot to expand the business and the land under cultivation to 100,000 square meters, with facilities to produce vegetables round-the-year.

“Food security is one of the main areas in which the government should support the private sector,” Al Khalaf said. Interestingly, in February, Al Khalaf was to commission a QR200 million (USD 55 million) meat processing factory in the Industrial Area, with a 50 ton daily capacity expandable to 100 tons in future.

He said the plant would help end Qatar’s reliance for meat products, including chicken, beef and mutton, on imports. The plant would be marketing some 80 types of meat products. “We will be exporting our products after meeting local demand,” Al Khalaf said.

According to Doha-based Gulf Organization for Industrial Consulting (GOIC), Qatar has only two small meat factories with a production capacity that meets a mere 10 percent of the country’s requirement.

Food waste by region

The Emir, H.H. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the government have continued to assure the private sector of support. The QNFSP set up a supreme committee last year comprising17 representatives from the ministries of economy and finance, trade, agriculture, environment and health, Qatar University, the Qatar Trade and Industry Chamber and various food import companies.

“The national food plan for Qatar is based on recognised standards in 80 countries and has taken into account the challenges faced by the food system in Qatar,” said Faleh bin Nasir al-Thani, director of the Ministry of Environment’s general directorate for agricultural research and development during the announcement of the master plan.

The committee tasked with implementing the plan was following the recommendations put forward to diversify agricultural products, expand agricultural land, support the more than 1,400 Qatari farms and increase their efficiency in terms of production and sustainable and optimal use of water and land reclamation,” Fahd Mohammed al-Attiya, the programme’s executive director had said then.

The plan also included renewable energy projects as well as others for water desalination and farm development. In June last year, the ministry of economy and finance and the chamber of commerce and industry came together to create a farmers’ co-operative to support the food security programme and develop Qatar’s agricultural resources, increase local agricultural production and raise the level of self-sufficiency.

Local media have since been reporting that of the estimated 1,400 farm houses in Qatar many have been converted into labour camps, garages and venues for various other commercial activities.

The Ministry of Environment, which now boasts the agricultural development department (earlier it was with the municipal ministry) is taking measures to correct the situation and cancel land allotments (if land is allotted on lease for farming by the government), as also withdraw the necessary approvals, if the owners of the farms that are flouting rules do not mend ways and comply with the law.

Food waste by type of food

It is not known how far the QNFSP has progressed and if the targeted ratio of local agricultural production envisaged as part of it could be achieved within the deadline. But what is certain is that some 80 to 90 percent of local vegetable and livestock requirements can be met through local production and breeding within the above deadline.

Mohtar says: “Once we define a comprehensive sustainable production system, then responsible industry and private sector should be the vehicle to implement the plan including new local specific and adaptive technologies or in supply chains and so on. The private sector is very crucial to this but should be within a sustainable framework, I believe, because it is not capable of competing globally. We must promote manufacturing and local products first through policies and later through building competitive industries.”

Smith, on the other hand, says that while governments play a vital role setting policies, regulating markets appropriately, and assisting with infrastructure and development, the private sector will be at the forefront delivering food security.

“In keeping with the Qatar National Vision 2030 and the overwhelming amount of data that came in during our process of reviewing the practices of more than 80 countries, it is clear that the private sector is simply better at innovating and operating efficiently,” says Smith, and adds that in order to tackle the challenges facing dry land nations, a mix of international collaboration and local innovation is required.

“Qatar has been actively investing in the agriculture and food sector through Hassad Food and the National Plan calls for continuing strategic international investment along with greater engagement of the local private sector.”

In order to maximize its participation, Smith says the private sector needs a stable, fair playing field and appropriate support for development and innovation. “With this in hand, I believe we’ll see long-term improvement in food security through strategic trade and investment, sustainable development of local production and increased efficiency in the operation of the local market and strategic reserves.”

Smith hails the farming and fishing sectors in Qatar saying that he has seen remarkable amount of innovation among Qatari farmers and fishing has been a core sector for Qatar for generations. But how far can local food production go? While the food production sector in dry land countries like Qatar is not likely to grow into a booming large-scale economic sector, it can be profitable if developed properly believes Smith.

Qatar’s role in the global market

The journey to Qatar’s food security can actually contribute to the well being of the world. According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the world’s agricultural system needs to produce far more food for a population expected to reach about 9.6 billion by 2050 while providing more jobs and reducing environmental impact.

“The world urgently needs to improve the way it produces and consumes food,” the report adds. Creating a sustainable food culture has become a global challenge. With that said, the need to develop new technologies and innovative solutions has never become more urgent. Qatar has set out on a serious quest to develop new technologies that can diminish its reliance on imported food.

According to Smith, states like Qatar can play a vital role in the global market for food-related technologies. “As a dry land nation dedicated to developing a knowledge economy, the country can lead in developing and improving some of the new technologies and methods that will be required for the resource-constrained future that lies ahead.”

Smith adds that due to Qatar’s harsh environment, expanding the agricultural sector and large scale fisheries must be done strategically through science and appropriate regulation. “Qatar has taken this challenge very seriously and invested in national food security planning that has drawn praise from international experts and organizations ranging from the UN and FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) to the World Bank and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development).

As we go from planning to implementation, Qatar is leading this process through its Ministry of Economy and Commerce and has made a wide range of support available through the Ministry of Environment and special financial support through the Qatar Development Bank.”

Food loss and waste reduction

Looking at food security from a different angle, we realize the issue is not limited to production. The WRI report says that “Reducing food loss and waste would increase food supplies and provide significant economic and environmental benefits.” The report quotes numbers produced by the United Nation’s FAO in 2011 suggesting roughly 32 percent of all food produced in the world in 2009 was either lost or wasted.

But this estimate is based on weight, and the WRI converted those estimates into calories as the number does not reflect the energy in food products that could have been consumed by people. The outcome revealed a smaller, but still shocking, number – approximately 24 percent of all food produced. “Essentially, people fail to consume one quarter of all calories produced for them,” the report adds.

Food loss in Asia

Smith says:

Globally, about one-fourth of the food we grow never makes it to the table and a significant portion is wasted after it leaves our table.

We have to pointedly modernize how we trade, transport and store food throughout the world.

And we have to also get over ugly food. A good deal of the food that is wasted gets discarded simply because it has a shape or colour that is not as desirable to the consumer; not because it has anything lacking at all from a nutritional or safety standpoint.

I’ve seen several really simple but brilliant solutions to address this. One of the local ones is Raw ME – an organic juice company launched by Layla Al Dorani, a young Qatari who markets nutritious drinks made from fresh, organic produce.

A carrot or cucumber that has a funny shape might not sell well in the local shop, but it still makes for an extremely healthy and refreshing drink.”

Highlighting the environmental impact of agriculture land expansion, the WRI report says: “The amount of land used for agriculture has grown by more than 10 million hectares per year since the 1960s, and expanding croplands and pasture lands are placing increasing pressure on tropical forests. Agriculture now accounts for nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of all freshwater use.”

Producing enough food for the world’s growing population comes at a price. “The historic amount of forests that are being removed throughout the world in order to expand farm land (most of which goes for fuel crops, not food) should be taken seriously.

We have to address the emissions of concentrated livestock feeding operations and we must do more to protect traditional wetland, coastal swamp, and mangrove zones that serve as natural carbon sinks. When it comes to adapting our communities and land-based operations to prepare for the impacts of climate change, we have to take seriously the risks that coastal cities such as Doha face when it comes to rising sea levels.

This will involve everything from climate-smart urban planning to working more closely with natural systems when it comes to developing coastlines. And in the face of wide swings in weather patterns, increased desertification and fundamental changes in rainfall and river flows, we need to focus on a more resilient approach to agriculture – rethinking what we grow, how we grow it and where we source key food items,” says Smith.

Tackling other aspects that can help achieve food security, though agricultural cities, aka urban farming, are not regarded as a solution, as they are described rather as creative real estate developments than high-efficiency agriculture.

And while cheaper imports might look appealing due to high cost of local production, there is more to food security than just the cost. “Price is only one part of the equation.

Food security is about price, availability, nutritional quality and safety. It requires a combination of trade and production to maintain a high level on these factors across the board – especially in times of global competition or crisis.

When you are a rapidly growing dry land state such as Qatar that also faces the trade constraints that come from having one land border, one sea trade route and one airport, it’s important to have a flexible, resilient and well-coordinated national food system in place.”

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