Qatar is placing the emphasis on home grown agricultural production over foreign farmland buys as it seeks to increase its food security, a top food supply official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Farming in the desert Gulf region is a challenge due to extreme heat, limited water supplies and high soil salinity. Despite the obstacles, Qatar and some other Gulf states are investing in technology that would help secure food supplies domestically.
Mahendra Shah, director, Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), said: "Qatar's priority right now is to put in place the resources to enhance domestic production.
QNFSP is a state entity established in 2008 to set the policy strategy for the securing food supplies.
Food price rises as commodities ran up to record highs in 2008 sent a shock through the Gulf, one of the world's biggest food importing regions, and sent governments on a quest to secure future food supplies and defend against future inflationary rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs.
Only a tenth of Qatar's around 65,000 hectares of arable land is being used for agriculture due to lack of fresh water supplies, said Shah in a telephone interview to Reuters.
Qatar was looking at ways to produce more water for farming in a way that was less detrimental for the environment than standard desalination plants, he said.
He said: "We are looking for ways by which we can desalinate water through the use of solar energy to minimize the water used straight from wells."
The QNFSP is in the midst of a study to evaluate where it could best grow crops and what the costs and water needs would be, he said. That plan would be completed by December 2011, Shah said.
Even relatively high cost domestic development would be justified given the strategic importance of securing food supplies, he said.
Shah said: "The cost is all relative to what happens in the world market and in the end even if the cost is high we have to start supporting our local production because that's what gives us food security."
Once the areas with the highest yield potential were earmarked, Qatar hoped to provide itself with 80-90 percent of its vegetable and livestock needs, Shah added.
The tiny Gulf Arab state, one of the richest countries in the world, currently imports around 80-90 percent of its needs.
Another challenge the programme aimed to address is improving marketing quality of the locally produced food, said Shah.
He added: "People in Qatar still live with the habits that imported goods are better than the local produce and this all because the imported goods appear to look better and have more attractive packaging."
Investing in farmland abroad would still be key to securing water intensive crops such as rice and wheat, said Shah. Qatar imports 98 percent of the rice and wheat it consumes, Shah added.
Qatar, unlike its Gulf Arab neighbours, has concentrated on buying farmland in developed rather than developing countries. Still, it may look at buying land in developing countries in the future, Shah said.
Hassad Food, owned by Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, formed a Sydney based subsidiary in December called Hassad Australia to to buy farmland for wheat and livestock production.
While land in developing countries was once seen as a cheap fix for securing food, growing criticism from international agencies had caused Gulf states to rethink their strategies which could risk tarnishing their reputation.
Shah said: "It has to be a win-win situation for the developing country and I believe the Gulf region might have a unique opportunity to be a development partner."
Potential regions Qatar might target for farmland purchases include Sub-Saharan Africa, which has around 395 million hectares of unused farmland, and South America, which has around 413 million hectares of untapped cultivable land, according to a QNFSP study. (Reuters)