x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gulf farms waste water and energy for little gain

You simply cannot make or import enough water to make up for the weak returns of produce in the Gulf.

Only a week after a local Omani paper highlighted the spiralling prices of onions and green produce, it reported the same drop in the price of tomatoes. This was followed by news, in the same paper, that local produce was expected to hit the shelves next month that would drive prices back up.

These reports were startling, if somewhat contradictory. Apparently more local produce will increase prices?

But what got me thinking was a study in another local paper about water used in agriculture, which noted that more than 95 per cent of fresh water in Gulf countries is dedicated to agriculture.

If you put two and two together, you start to wonder about using all that fresh water and still not being able to control the price of tomatoes.

Policy-makers who have read the reports on yields and efficiency probably would have a ready answer. We've all heard that to get one ounce of orange juice you'd need to expend twelve ounces of water, or something like that. The Gulf's answer has been a typical to the Gulf; desalinate with absolute abandon.

But that is one of the most expensive, if not impossible, approaches to the whole issue. To start with, the very soil we try to farm does not support agriculture. The fact is the region makes human habitation difficult, let alone the cultivation of fruits and vegetables that are not native to the area. Why else was there such limited settlement for thousands of years? It was only during the last 50 years of rapidly expanding oil wealth that human habitation has greatly expanded.

The region is not endowed with the weather or soil for widespread agriculture. Barring few individual efforts, even fruits such as dates that can thrive in oases have not flourished on a major scale. Date farms have been deserted or even intentionally spoilt so owners could reclassify them as commercial land, which brings in more money. Most farmers these days build greenhouses and import extravagant watering technologies.

Another solution has emerged: some Gulf countries buy large tracts of agricultural land in other countries for food security.

There are many countries that gladly sell their land. But there may be a chance that in the darkest hours, when it really matters, their governments would find it hard to export food when their own people are hungry.

Some exporting countries with stronger economies are more direct. India has stopped exports of certain grades of rice. During the fires in Russia this August, Moscow banned exports of grain, sending wheat prices to a two-year high.

The Gulf's strength is financial and the fact that its members can work together. It should concentrate on building monetary reserves to secure food purchases indefinitely. It should partner and invest in protecting crops and increasing yields in natural farm lands. Partnerships should extend well beyond owning farms and claiming crops but should support technologies and farming communities, in political and socio-economic modelling, trading of food commodities, and even global storage and transport. Contractual control is not enough.

The Gulf can also start to manage demand for food by addressing our explosive population growth and our diabetic eating habits. Managing supply of food locally is beyond the means of the land. You cannot feed a nation with lettuce and tomatoes alone.

Farming is not like manufacturing, where you can invest in technologies and manage the import of raw materials and export profitably. You simply cannot make or import enough water to make up for the weak returns of produce.

Look on the bright side - if the Gulf diverted even a fraction of its desalination efforts away from the tomato fields, people would have more drinking water than we would ever need.

Either way, the solution is simple: just stop farming.


Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman