Qatar aims to produce more of its food domestically, by spending massively to boost crop yields and convert semi-desert into agricultural land.
Qatar's next goal? Be top of the crops
DUBAI // Qatar's energy resources give it one of the world's highest per-capita incomes, a futuristic urban skyline, enough clout to host the 2022 football World Cup and to be a major diplomatic player.
But its wealth may not be enough for the arid state to achieve an even more ambitious goal - becoming largely self-sufficient in food.
Like other oil-rich, water-poor Gulf states, Qatar has been investing in large areas of farmland overseas to ensure food supplies.
The agricultural arm of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, Hassad Food, has bought land in Sudan and Australia and has announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on agricultural projects in Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries.
But in contrast to the other Gulf states, Qatar also aims to produce most of its food domestically, by spending massively to boost crop yields and convert semi-desert into agricultural land.
Qatar's Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, issued a decree this year to organise the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), tackling "one of the most pressing challenges that Qatar is facing".
"Today, there are 1,400 farms in Qatar and they will increase to 3,000 farms with the new plan," said Fahad bin Mohammed Al Attiya, the QNFSP's chairman.
"We anticipate that domestic food production, if new technologies are applied and the efficiency system enforced, can easily reach 60 per cent of our market needs. We anticipate that domestic demand can be met by 60 to 70 per cent."
Qatar imports up to 90 per cent of its food. It has a population of about 1.7 million people, with about 20 per cent of them Qatari citizens and the rest foreign workers.
Mr Attiya said implementation of the food security programme would start in January 2014, after a period of preparation.
"The implementation period is 10 years. By 2024, we should have a fully operating system," he added.
It is a seductive vision, and Qatar's vast wealth as the world's top liquefied natural gas exporter will allow it to mobilise the best technology and equipment.
But many economists and agricultural experts say Qatar's plans do not make economic sense and there is little need for them, given the small size of the population.
"They don't have that much land they can put into production, much of it is desert, and Qatar has a very small population," said Abdolreza Abbassian, the senior economist at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome.
"They import almost the entire cereals they need for domestic consumption, something like 200,000 tonnes a year, which they cannot really produce. What they produce domestically is minimal. I don't really see much prospect."
Mr Abbassian suggested the country might be better off focusing its investment on agricultural land in more temperate climates.
"Given the size of the country and the amount of imports, which is rather modest, I would be surprised if it's really such a need to resort to such an investment, which is far more capital and labour-intensive," he said. "Why would they do that rather than purchasing land globally?"
Qatar's environment is hostile to agriculture, characterised by extreme heat, water scarcity and high soil salinity.
The average precipitation in depth is just 74 milimetres per year, compared with Britain's 1,220 mm, FAO data shows.
Only about 1 per cent of Qatar's total land area of 11,590 square kilometres is arable, according to the FAO. Also, many experts do not see a strong need for Qatar to increase its food security.
Although it is located in a volatile region of the world, its huge foreign currency reserves and comparatively small population mean it could probably arrange adquate new sources of food imports fairly easily in an emergency.
"When designing their food security strategies, countries with relatively low agricultural potential, such as Qatar, may be better advised to look beyond fostering domestic agricultural production," said Clemens Breisinger, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
"Given Qatar's low levels of food insecurity risk and low agricultural potential, it is important to carefully assess the opportunity costs of the investments planned under the QNFSP and to potentially consider
In 2008, Saudi Arabia abandoned a push to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat, concluding that it was simply too expensive and wasteful in using domestic water resources.
The country now plans to be 100 per cent reliant on imports of wheat by 2016.
Mahendra Shah, a food security adviser to the UN and the director of international planning at Aquiess Rainaid, a company that develops rainfall technology to fight drought, said the drive to produce wheat domestically using underground water had caused environmental damage in Saudi Arabia.
"The underground water reservoirs are saline and severely depleted," he said. "This is an example of an ecological disaster that will take decades to recharge and clean up the aquifers."
But Qatar has shrugged off the example of its larger neighbour, showing the same ambition and faith in its financial power that led it to make other controversial but ultimately successful investments, including its World Cup bid, its creation of international television broadcaster Al Jazeera, and its backing of the rebel side during last year's Libyan revolution.
Qatar's farming methods include open-field agriculture, greenhouse production, and hydroponics, a soil-less culture technology which uses less water and land and can yield up to 10 times the crop grown in an open field.
"The basket of products has to be diverse," said Mr Attiya. "The products will be mainly fruits and vegetables, and we're looking at cereals as well, fodder, livestock and fisheries."
One of the prototype farms, Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC), is located in the desert a short drive from Qatar's capital, Doha.
"We are producers of vegetables, seasonal flowering plants and outdoor plants. We have one of the largest landscape projects in Qatar, with 40 hectares (99 acres) of land," said Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, SAIC's agriculture sector manager.
SAIC, which started vegetable production in 2001, is growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and other vegetables through a combination of greenhouses, hydroponic systems and regular farming. It supplies supermarkets and hotels.
Qatar now produces about 23 per cent of its requirement of vegetables. They are grown by 56 per cent of the country's farmers and take up 11 per cent of its cultivated farm area, according to the QNFSP.
Attracting enough private businessmen may be difficult, however, especially if they are restricted in where they can sell their produce under the terms of the QNFSP.
"It is very important to note that the food-security plan in Qatar is subject to zero export policy," Mr Attiya said. "If anything is produced in Qatar, that production cannot be exported for reason of protecting our natural resources.
"Because of the water involved in producing food, a country like Qatar that is very dry cannot export water through food."