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Hydroponics vegetable (Manit321/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Hydroponics vegetable (Manit321/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Technology makes the desert bloom Add to ...

Mahmoud Shamardal picks a cherry tomato off the green twisting plant, revelling in the flavour as he passes round a handful for others to taste. The scene is not the balmy Mediterranean, but a luscious farm set in the middle of a dusty expanse of desert, a half-hour drive from the centre of Doha, the Qatari capital.

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Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex is one of a series of ventures that have sprung up in response to increasing concerns that the Gulf is almost totally dependent on food imports.

While Gulf states have made a series of high-profile overseas land acquisitions in Africa and elsewhere, the private sector has tried to fill some of the gaps in domestic production – although some question whether it can ever make more than a small dent in a big food security problem.

“The challenge in Qatar is more aggressive [than other Gulf countries] water is a very big factor here,” says Mr. Shamardal, the manager of Al Sulaiteen farm. “To deal with this you really have to have technology.”

Even when compared with its neighbouring Gulf states, Qatar has very little fertile land or naturally occurring underground water, Mr. Shamardal says.

That means agriculture operations such as Al Sulaiteen, along with other Gulf companies, are looking for technological solutions. One area of focus is hydroponics, where nutrient solutions are used to feed plants in greenhouses, to overcome both the shortage of water and the extreme heat. Using hydroponics can reduce the use of water by 40-60 per cent, farmers say.

“We have the technologies and enterprise that are appropriate for domestic production,” says Deborah Schlichting, a food security expert at Solvus Economics in Abu Dhabi. Even in a desert environment with little history of intensive agriculture, food security can be achieved “through a small amount of domestic production and beneficial trade,” she says.

But with domestic production still providing just a fraction of overall needs, most Gulf governments have looked overseas to secure food supplies, investing tens of billions of dollars buying farming property in what is described by many as a land grab. Analysts warn that much of the land acquired is not being worked, meaning it has little impact on food security.

Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of Agrisecura, a company that focuses on investing in farms overseas, says there is a simple solution to that.

“Land needs to stay in the ownership of the people working it,” he says. “If you have land you should be employing people to work that land.” Mr. Culpepper’s company does not buy land but invests in the farms themselves, maintaining the staff.

Closer to home, it is not just in Qatar where the private sector is taking the first steps to domestic production. In the United Arab Emirates, a number of hydroponics farms have been set up in recent years, and are now starting to play a more important role in the market. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has seen new agricultural companies emerge.

Emirates Hydroponics Farms, which in 2005 was one of the early entrants to the region’s advanced technology farming market, has now started to deliver free to its customers in Abu Dhabi and the surrounding area. The company sells its produce, such as cucumbers, capsicums, strawberries and lettuces, online, at similar prices to the supermarket.

Emirates Mushrooms is another private sector initiative, established by the Al Masaood Group. It says it is the only fully organic mushroom grower in the market so far, with a farm of 10 specially designed growing rooms that can produce 8,000 kg of mushrooms a week.

Last year, Abu Dhabi announced it was set to launch Baniyas, the largest aquaponics centre in the world, a project that started with lettuces, but was set to expand to other vegetables. Aquaponics uses water that fish live in, beneath the plants, offering extra nutrients to the lettuces.

As well as growing everyday staples, Gulf companies are also seeking to use advanced technologies for the production of less-consumed luxuries such as caviar and white abalone.

However, some skeptics say food security in the Gulf is nothing but a lofty dream. “There’ll never be food security here because there is no water,” says Mr. Culpepper, who underlines the unsustainability of domestic production.

The Gulf’s finite and declining reserves of naturally occurring underground water are the central challenge to the sustainability of desert agriculture operations. Groundwater supplies used for farming are replenished with desalinated water, which lacks the same nutrients. The water is also being consumed much faster than it is being replenished.

Although the food supply balance will remain heavily weighted towards imports, increasing whatever small-scale production there is can only contribute to overall food security, analysts say. It can also be a profitable enterprise, tapping into growing demand in a market accustomed to high-priced imports.

Mr. Shamardal plans to expand his farm and offer management services to the 1,200 farms in Qatar, of which he estimates only 200-250 are actually producing. He grows cucumbers, capsicums, green beans, and many other fruits and vegetables.

“Our vision regarding this is not only for making profit. It’s more like a national mission, to produce vegetables to take part in the food security of Qatar – this is actually our main target,” he says.

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