It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly shops in Qatar’s supermarkets to hear that over 90% of the food on the shelves is imported from abroad, making the country extremely vulnerable to price hikes, embargoes and supply disruptions. Taking control of the food supply chain is known as ‘food security’ and it’s one of the most important challenges facing Qatar in the coming years.
That’s the view of Dr. Samsul Huda of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, who is head of a multidisciplinary international team examining how best to use Qatar’s resources to maximize domestic crop productivity within Qatar, but also looking at land purchasing and contract farming in resource-rich countries in temperate and tropical climates in Africa, Asia, and Australasia. Qatar produces only about 8-10 percent of food that it consumes, yet domestic production is significantly constrained by several factors; adverse climatic conditions, quality of soils, scarcity of irrigation water, inappropriate crop rotation, market constraints, and ineffective farming practices and subsidies.
“It’s initially a problem of perception”, explains Dr. Huda. “If you ask the average man on the street here, the response will probably be ‘there is no problem! I can get food whenever and wherever I want’”. However, when a country relies on external markets for its food, it could find itself in trouble should the exporting countries undergo instability, climatic changes, natural disasters, crop disease, or changes in political whims which mean that exports are restricted.
For these reasons, as well as the rapidly growing population, Qatar is committed to taking charge of its own food security. The two-pronged approach of optimizing domestic output, allied to the strategy of overseas contract farming, means that the current wide range of fresh goods should be able to be enjoyed long into the future. Wheat, for instance, would not thrive in Qatar, but forms an important part of the diet of many residents. This can be grown overseas whilst Qatari farms concentrate on other crops more suited to the local climate and environment.
Deciding what to grow, and when, though, is a difficult optimization problem with many variables. The current work is looking at many factors such as ‘when is the best time to plant a cucumber crop?’ – that depends on weather, market demand (as these are perishable goods), price, availability of water etc. Everything is looked at in terms of cost and benefits.
There are two approaches to optimizing crop yields within Qatar: open field, and glass houses. Using both allows for a wider range of potential crops to be grown.
It may be possible to use 100 hectares of arable land to grow tomatoes which crop at a time when tomato demand is high in the local market, but what if the cost of doing so means that imported tomatoes are still less expensive? It may have been a better economical use of that land and water to grow aubergines or courgettes at that particular time, which would have commanded higher prices when it came to harvest them. Hence one of the integral members of the team is an economist at Qatar University.
The complicated interplay of the all of these variables is something the team are still analyzing, and it will take a few more years of gathering data before they will be completely happy with the accuracy of the predictions of what to grow, how much to grow and when to plant it. The ultimate plan is to have a database with all this data and several algorithms which can give such practical advice to farmers within Qatar. As the population grows, and the relative proportion of certain ethnic groups increases, their particular preferences for certain vegetables will affect the market to a predictable degree, which farmers will be able to react to.
Another part of the project is to try to improve the agricultural skills of farm workers in the country. Simple improvements to crop rotations and watering and harvesting policies could provide big benefits.
And maybe, after all this, it will still be more economical to outsource most of Qatar’s food requirements to overseas farmers? That is another question which still needs to be addressed. Whatever the answer, this complicated issue certainly gives one some food for thought.
Improving Food Security in Qatar: Assessing Alternative Cropping Systems Feasibility and Productivity in Variable Climates, Soils and Marketing Environments.
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