Qatar’s massive hydrocarbons-derived financial cushion might suggest the country is unlikely to face difficulties in ensuring basic food needs are met. Food security crises tend to be located in poverty-stricken parts of the world where climatic conditions are challenging. Qatar does not fit this mould, even if it does face serious water scarcity and has limited arable land available.

In actuality, the Gulf state is heavily reliant on food imports, which account for an estimated 90 per cent of its food intake. In the UK, the comparable figure is 40 per cent. For most Arab countries, 90 per cent is the upper limit, and most are import-reliant for 50-90 per cent of their consumption.

Abundant oil and gas revenues are of little use to Qatar if it cannot fully ensure its ability to feed its population in a crisis. This realisation led the then heir-apparent, now Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in 2008 to establish a national food security programme with a remit to increase domestic production.

New food security strategy

Five years on, the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), chaired by Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, is preparing a new national plan intended to ensure food security in a country with just 74 millimetres of annual rainfall and an estimated 28,000 hectares of its 1 million-hectare landmass considered arable.

According to the QNFSP, Qatar’s food imports are going to exact an increasingly heavy price in the future. Imports are expected to rise 153 per cent to $3.3bn a year in the coming 10 years due to rising population growth.

The country suffers endemic high prices and substantial price volatility for virtually all imported commodities. This price volatility makes an impact on food security as it affects household incomes and purchasing power.

“We face a storm of challenges in Qatar,” says Jonathan Smith, adviser to Al-Attiya. “We have environmental constraints, with limited water resources and marginal arable land, and we’re located in an area that is tough to ship to.”

One glaring reason for the food security crisis is the fact that most of the infrastructure that makes up Qatar’s food system was developed in the 1980s, when the population was under 300,000. Today, it is 2 million and rising. Money is not an issue for the country’s authorities, but pure cash does not equate to food security.

With [our] food security plan, we can get up to 40 per cent of national supplies… with one-third less water

Jonathan Smith, QNFSP adviser

The QNFSP’s aim is not to target the unattainable. Overambitious bids for self-sufficiency are being avoided. “There are many examples worldwide where this kind of ambition has had a negative impact – not just environmentally but economically too,” says Smith. “Self-sufficiency is not the aim. What we want to build is resilience – to create a national system that is flexible and has the capacity to respond to change in the global market.”

Nonetheless, the programme does envisage an increase in self-sufficiency in the ramp-up stage to 2025. The aim is to increase the volume of domestic production from the current level of 8 per cent to 40 per cent by then.

But Smith warns against focusing on numbers. “The magic number for us isn’t the 40 per cent; it’s about what we can do with our resources. With [our] plan, we can get up to 40 per cent of our national supplies with the same amount of land and farms, and one-third less water. It’s not about self-sufficiency as much as it’s about radically transitioning production efficiency.”

Though much attention has been devoted to the acquisition of overseas farmland by Gulf countries in recent years, the QNFSP does not involve a plan to buy up large tracts of fertile land in Africa. Instead, the focus is on producing as much as possible in a responsible way.

Responsible food production

“Firstly, it’s about getting the right crop selection,” says Smith. “It’s important to produce the right crops, which can be supported by the environment and the market.” This means fresh vegetables and fruits – items that are hard to import and store, but which have the highest nutritional value. Rigorous testing will gauge the most sustainable and responsible use of Qatar’s water. Evaluation tests by the QNFSP will be used to establish an ideal crop selection. Supporting this will be an import-management strategy that addresses market imperfections and transport bottlenecks causing high and volatile import prices.

Qatar’s leadership is also committed to making strategic investments in the food sector. It has deployed Hassad Foods, the agricultural investment vehicle of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), to this effect. An entity separate from the QNFSP, Hassad has made several investments in regional food projects, engaging Oman’s Al-Saffa Poultry to develop a $68.5m chicken processing scheme that eventually intends to provide 22 per cent of Qatar’s poultry needs. It has also made a $500m investment in an Indian producer of rice, coffee and spices.

In 2008, Qatar was in talks with Kenya to lease 40,000 hectares of land to grow crops as part of a package that in exchange would see the Gulf state fund a new port in the African country. But such bilateral supply contracts have drawn criticism. “Why, for example, would an Australian farm deliver to Qatar if it can get a better price from China, which has lower transport costs?” asks Eckart Woertz, a Gulf economic analyst and author of Oil For Food: the Global Food Crisis and the Middle East.

Critics say wealthy Gulf states do not need to own land to grow food. “What you need are open and reliable food markets,” says Woertz. The QNFSP also acknowledges that the “land race” in Africa will not lead to food security, even if it may create good investment opportunities. “Best practice worldwide suggests smart investment is all about improving production efficiency, not owning land,” says Smith.

The QNFSP sees a huge opportunity for spending on agricultural technologies, bio-science and training. “One of the current significant gaps is in the efficiency of output in places such as Africa, which means improving training and ensuring a supply of high-skilled labour for the agriculture sector,” says Smith.

In the future, he adds, targeted investment is going to focus more on increasing productivity and food security in the host nation as well. “Having a sovereign investment in a nation that is not food-secure itself is not a sound strategy,” he says. “You will be the first to be kicked off the farm.”

The next step for the QNFSP is to get closer to stakeholders so that in the ramp-up phase to 2025 it can shift from being a research and policy advisory to one geared more towards monitoring developments and engaging with ministries and the private sector.

Ensuring water supply

The target of getting production up to 40 per cent is indeed an important driver. But the QNFSP has other ambitions. One of its aims is building water management infrastructure to support agriculture, with the joint aim of recharging freshwater aquifer resources. “The aim is to recharge [the freshwater supply] so that by 2030 it will be at roughly 1980s levels, which can provide up to two years of back-up supply,” says Smith. “We want to wean Qatar off groundwater extraction, which is a bold step forwards.”

Having been a strong focus of the emir from the outset, Qatar’s food security strategy can count on heavyweight political backing. The realistic goals outlined in the new plan suggest the country is not about to make itself a hostage to overambitious targets.

Key fact

Most of Qatar’s food infrastructure was developed in the 1980s, when the population was under 300,000

Source: MEED