Moving Qatar towards agricultural self-sufficiency

by  — 25 February 2013

Qatar outlined ambitious plans to achieve national food security in the wake of 2008’s food crisis. The aim of the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) is to bring the country as close as possible to food self-sufficiency by 2023.

The Sahara Forest project in collaboration with Norwegian firm Yara International and QAFCO realises its first pilot facility in Doha. An agreement for the site was signed in February 2012 in Oslo, with US$5.4 million (QR20 million) in funding. (Image courtesy The Sahara Project)The Sahara Forest project in collaboration with Norwegian firm Yara International and QAFCO realises its first pilot facility in Doha. An agreement for the site was signed in February 2012 in Oslo, with US$5.4 million (QR20 million) in funding. (Image courtesy The Sahara Project)

Some observers have even raised the prospect of farms rising skywards in the form of skyscrapers as Qatar considers introducing hydroponics, or soilless agriculture, and ‘vertical farming’. Though some of these ideas are just in the conceptual phase, with the recent opening of The Sahara Project in Doha, real progress has been made towards Qatar’s high tech ‘farms of the future’ and could be the ticket to self-sufficiency.

Qatar has been affected by rising food prices in recent years, caused by produce growing countries opting to restrict their exports. At the wholesale market in Doha, shoppers have become accustomed to aubergines from Saudi Arabia, apples from Lebanon and China, expensive tomatoes from the Netherlands, bananas from the Philippines and strawberries from Egypt. Qatar residents spent QR3.5 billion on food imports in 2012, with costs set to rise a further 15 percent in the next 12 months.
Along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar has been investing in land overseas (including Sudan and more than 7300 square kilometres in Australia) to produce crops that can be shipped home. However, in the future, Qatar plans, ambitiously some might say, to produce much of its food domestically, despite the fact that there are no rivers, and aquifiers are fast diminishing. The vision is for solar powered desalination to irrigate the extra agricultural land, which was described as an “insurance policy” by Fahad Al Attiya, Qatar National Food Security Programme chairman.

“Our future development is inconceivable if we cannot secure our own food resources,” Al Attiya told the Guardian newspaper in January. “We are all in favour of international trade, but we also believe in climate change and its consequences for farming. In the future some countries may reduce their exports and we cannot remain so dependent.

“We have made no investments for the past 20 years. We still use old farming methods so productivity is very poor,” Al Attiya added. “A substantial share of crops is lost during storage. We need to input new skills, training and technology. Many think it’s unrealistic, but I think it’s going to be revolutionary.” There are no formal targets, but Al Attiya estimates that Qatar can be 60 percent self-sufficient in food production. At present the country has about 1400 farms using its finite water resources on 45,000 cultivated hectares, contributing less than ten percent of the nation’s food consumption. Al Attiya says that a total of 110,000 hectares could be used for agriculture, which could be extended to 130,000 by reclaiming land from the desert.

By last year, QNFSP was openly co-operating with research and development institutions to create new technologies. It is known to have exchanged ideas with the Syrian-based International Centre for Agricultural Development in the dry areas, the German Aerospace Centre and Texas A&M University, which has a campus in Doha. So far, US$300 million (QR1 billion) has been invested in the plans, but Al Attiya admits the implementation process will cost “billions of dollars,” with roughly 50 percent of funding coming from the government and the rest from the private sector.

Sahara Forest Project

In addition, the Sahara Forest Project AS, a Norwegian private limited company, is building a project test and demonstration centre of sufficient scale to prove the commercial viability of its own concept. It hopes local communities will eventually benefit directly through employment and educational opportunities. The site will function as a shared innovation platform by bringing together international and local entrepreneurs, scientists, business and other stakeholders in green innovation.
The Sahara Forest Project was first presented in Jordan to His Majesty King Abdullah II in 2010. In January 2011 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in Amman, which confirmed three comprehensive studies to be carried out in Jordan. The agreement allows 20 hectares for a test centre, and 200 hectares for possible later expansion.

As for Qatar, collaboration with Yara International and Qatar Fertiliser Company (QAFCO) has seen the Sahara Forest Project realise its first pilot facility in Doha. An agreement for the site was signed in February 2012 in Oslo, with US$5.4 million (QR20 million) in funding. The 10,000 square metre pilot facility, opened in December, uses a saltwater cooling system and greenhouse roofs to dissipate waste heat. The heat from the mirrors drives a desalination system, which produces distilled water for plants grown in the greenhouse and surrounding desert. Waste heat is used to warm the greenhouses in the winter and to regenerate the dessicant used for dehumidifying the air. The system also produces an algae byproduct for use as biopower.

In the company’s chief executive officer, Joachim Hauge, the QNFSP finds a respected long-term planner who previously advised the European Union Energy commissioner on Europe’s 2030 decarbonisation objectives. Hauge believes that increasing food production by 70 percent by the year 2070 will stretch science to the limit, but is satisfied that the universities, thinktanks and non-governmental organisations are “working tirelessly” to this end. “For the seawater-cooled greenhouses in The Sahara Forest Project, development has been especially quick, going from concept drawings a few years back to now being able to produce high yields of cucumbers,” he says.
Hauge is keen to clear up some misconceptions about hydroponics, too. “We give the plant the exact nutrient that it requires, with no waste of valuable water and fertiliser, to enhance the root zone growth,” he says, “leading to a very healthy plant with high quality and tasty fruits. The plants can be raised without pesticides using good hygiene and biological control systems.”

Obstacles and opportunities

But there are caveats. Eckart Woertz, former director of economic studies at the Gulf Research Centre, agrees that the cultivation of vegetables and fruits might make sense in Qatar, but suspects that production of water intensive cereals with desalinated water “would be highly questionable” he says and warns that “desalination is environmentally unfriendly, as the disposal of the brine is ecologically harmful for marine life.”

It is ostensibly just as well, then, that in 2013 the working group will perform a comprehensive programme at the Qatari site to fine-tune the technologies to local conditions. The Oasis is the full-scale commercial implementation of the Sahara Forest Project. It is hoped that in future a Qatar Farming Community might hold a centrally financed infrastructure rented to local small-scale farmers. A Farming Community Fund could be made available to local participants using microfinance principles, but details are not firm at present.

So can we expect to see vertical farms looming over Doha one day? Hauge emphasises that vertical farming will not be utilised in his project, at least. “It is an interesting concept for areas with high population density,” he says. “I think that in the coming years we will gain more knowledge, including on the cost-analysis aspect, giving greater clarity on the future potential for this approach.”

Eckart concurs, saying to The Edge “commercial vertical farming, as propagated by Despommier of Columbia University, is still largely an academic exercise…with opponents saying that the advantage of reduced food miles and production close to urban costumers is overcompensated by the energy needs for lighting, heating and cooling. There are open spaces available, so the economic advantages of having vertical farms might be more limited than in larger urban agglomerations without a hinterland.”

The biggest difficulty for the Sahara Forest Project, admits Hauge, is not with any of the individual components, but “in bringing all the technologies together in a well-integrated system, where the waste-stream from one technology becomes a resource for another component. With this technical challenge there is also a challenge in bringing together people and innovation cultures from various fields of science and technology development.”

Hauge is fixed on “crossing borders” but also drawing on local partners, which he says are very capable, after they completed the site in time for the COP 18 climate change talks last November. This could, he closes, also create opportunities for Qatari based entrepreneurs, as Sahara Forest is open to any or all forms of close co-operation and joint ventures with commercial companies in a field that could eventually help Qatar to save billions of riyals annually.

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  • Adrian

    Not a single comment?

  • Subash Gautam

    dsalinated salts can b used commercially …

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