Desert Dreams: Can the Middle Eastern Country of Qatar Learn to Feed Itself?

Qatar is a desert nation with lots of oil and natural gas, but little arable land. That's meant importing most of the food the country needs, but with climate change threatening agriculture, Qatar is willing to spend billions to become self-sufficient in agriculture. But is the goal realistic?

  • Share
  • Read Later
carolyn drake for TIME

A migrant workers holds a melon harvested early in the morning at Arab Qatari Agricultural Production Company, Oct. 4, 2012. The plants are watered with drip irrigation.

From seeding clouds with rain-inducing particles to erecting a wall of trees against the advancing Sahara Desert, scientists have long sought to answer the challenge of growing crops in drought-struck lands. Drylands account for 41% of the world’s land surface and are home to more than two billion people. Those numbers, combined with fears that climate change will exacerbate what could become a chronic global foodcrisis as global population grows, has sparked new interest in turning the world’s deserts into gardens.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, a salt scoured spit of land the size of Connecticut that has no rivers, no lakes and annual rainfall averaging 74 mm—barely enough for a respectable puddle. As chairman of Qatar’s National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiya has been tasked with the seemingly impossible: turning Qatar’s food import ratio on its head, meaning that instead of importing 90% of the country’s annual food needs, as it currently does, it will produce them locally. Within the next 12 years.

To balance his country’s diet, Al-Attiya envisions nothing less than the complete re-engineering of Qatar’s environment, both physical and social. From new desalinization plants to a total upending of how Qatar uses energy (using the country’s abundant fossil fuels only for export), greenhouses that cover square miles instead of acres and a social revolution that will elevate farmers while regulating them closely, Al-Attiya’s quest to turn Qatar into a nation of locavores knows no limits.

That includes, apparently, financial ones. Getting exact figures on the country’s plans is about as easy as finding arugula in a desert, but Al-Attiya says the Qatari government is backing the initiative with about $25 billion. (He argues that the private sector will be investing several times that on major infrastructure projects once the project gets off the ground.) Al-Attiya has the unenviable task of convincing Qataris, and the world, that a homegrown meal is not only possible, but essential for the Mideast country’s national security. If Qatar can succeed in feeding its populace with the fruits of its own soil, it will be a prescient investment in the future of food security in one of the most food insecure regions. If it fails, it could well go down as one of the most ill-conceived and arrogant white elephants in history.

(MORE: Did Climate Change Kill the Mayans?)

Qatar is both blessed and cursed. It may have little water, and no arable land to speak of, but with an estimated $10 trillion in natural gas reserves it has the cash to eliminate those obstacles. So it is no wonder that it approaches this latest challenge with all the brio that only a country that has gone in the span of two generations from living in tents to having more skyscrapers per capita than most world capitals. “We are tackling the biggest challenge of the 21st century, and we are doing it in the most inhospitable environment on earth,” says Al-Attiya. “If we are successful, and I am confident we will be, it will be a revolution as important as the industrial revolution was in its time.”

Qatar’s drive for food independence has its origins in the 2007-2008 global food crisis. Drought in major grain-producing countries, combined with export restrictions and commodity speculation, sent prices soaring. Qatar, which relies on imports for pretty much everything but dates and fish, feared it could soon run out of staples. “That was a real wake up call,” says Al-Attiya. “We are the richest country in the world, and we couldn’t even buy rice.” Other Gulf countries responded to the crisis by buying fertile land in foreign countries, but Al-Attiya did not believe that such a solution would be sustainable for the long term. The only solution, he decided, was to produce everything in house. His stance was vindicated last month, when rising food prices in Saudi, one of Qatar’s biggest suppliers, prompted bans on exports of poultry, potatoes, onions and other staples. “Everything has to work together,” says Al-Attiya, who likes to compares Qatar’s project to NASA’s Apollo Program. “Putting a man on the moon didn’t happen in a year, and it took the combined efforts of thousands of scientists and a supportive government to pull it off.”

When Al-Attiya’s father was born, food security meant an ample supply of dates and camel meat. Water from the country’s few oases supplied a tiny population whose growth was limited by a lack of resources. That all changed with the advent of oil, and now, paradoxically, Qatar finds itself at its most insecure, even as the wealth rolls in. Residents consume about 1.2 million meters cubed of desalinated water a day, a third more than what Israel uses for a population nearly four times its size. Agriculture on a scale big enough to feed Qatar’s 1.8 million residents would require up to an additional 3.5 million meters cubed of desalinated water a day, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. And that will hold true only if farmers use the strictest of water conservation techniques currently available, such as greenhouses, drip irrigation and hydroponics. That may be Al-Attiya’s biggest challenge.

(MORE: Vital Farms: Raising the Ultra-Organic Egg)

Qatar’s few existing farms rely exclusively on wells that tap a rapidly diminishing aquifer. Hydrologists estimate that the natural freshwater supply has been depleted by some 85 percent; what remains is often so brackish that it too needs to be treated before it can be used. Well water is free, so few farmers have an incentive to conserve. “We farm in Qatar as if we lived on the banks of the Nile,” complains Al-Attiya as he conducts a tour of his family farm, a lush oasis framed by towering date palms and water-hungry poplars. Pools of water glint in the early morning sun, a result of the flood irrigation techniques favored by Al-Attiya’s Egyptian farm manager. Al-Attiya takes a deep breath of the humid, mulch-scented air, andexhales in disgust. “This is the smell of a draining aquifer. The smell of waste.” Edenic as the scene may be, he envisions a future where every drop of water reaches its intended target: the roots of a plant engineered for maximum productivity, grown in an environment carefully regulated to mitigate the scorching effects of summer days in the desert. That, he says with a chuckle, will be his “Arab Spring.”

The necessary infrastructure for Qatar’s future farming powerhouses will be heavily subsidized. The desalinated water, piped in from new, purpose-built facilities on the cost, will still be free, but carefully monitored by a centrally controlled metering system. Farmers will be trained in the latest conservation techniques, and regulated, says Al-Attiya, “the way you in the West regulate doctors and lawyers for the public good. We have to make sure they know how to value and treat our most precious resource correctly.” That means that someone caught growing tomatoes the wrong way risks having his tap turned off, the stick to the government’s generously subsidized carrot.

When the purpose-built desalinization facilities are completed by 2025, Qatar will inject additional water into the depleted aquifer, to be used as a strategic reserve in case of crisis (the current reserve, stored in man-made tanks, would last 1.8 days at current consumption rates). But desalinization isn’t cheap, not economically, and certainly not environmentally. Each cubic meter of desalinated Gulf water produces 45 kilograms of salt. All told, the byproduct of Qatar’s projected desalinization scheme will produce some 157,500,000 kg of salt per day, enough to fill 4,620 shipping containers. For the moment Qatar pumps the resulting brine back into the Gulf, as does Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait. There have been no studies on the long-term impact of such practices on the Gulf, says Fadhil Sadooni, assistant director of the Environmental Studies Center at Qatar University, but common sense dictates that it will not be sustainable. “Brine is a serious problem,” he says. “The Gulf is already a stressed body of water, and I don’t think it can sustain this kind of pollution for the long term.”

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

Conventional desalinization has one other nasty byproduct: carbon emissions. Both thermal desalinization, which uses heat to distill pure water, and reverse osmosis, which pumps seawater through filter membranes, are energy intensive. Blessed with bountiful fossil fuels, Gulf countries rarely had to worry about the cost. Until now. “Gas is cheap,” says Al-Attiya. “Global warming is not.” The QNFSP aims to desalinate all its agricultural water needs using solar energy alone. It is no small undertaking. Producing the water necessary for Qatar’s agricultural vision will require 1.8 gigawats of power generation capacity. That would mean nearly 4000 hectares worth of solar panel parks—slightly bigger than New York’s central park.. Even die-hard solar advocates admit that solar desalinization is likely to be double the cost of gas for the foreseeable future. But it’s a price Al-Attiya says Qatar is willing to pay. “In the long run you really have no choice. Oil and gas will finish one day. If we don’t use the resources we have now to develop an alternative, we will face troubles down the line.”

On the way back from his farm, Al-Attiya fiddles with the navigation map on the dashboard of his Porsche Cayenne to deliver an impromptu lecture on Qatar’s agricultural prospects. According to the FAO only 1% of the country’s terrain is arable, the rest is sand dune, urban settlements, gravel and vast stretches of salt-crusted soil called sabkha. The Qataris are a little more optimistic, and have identified through their own surveys a total of 68,716 hectares, or 6% of the land, that can be farmed. Still, it’s nowhere near what Qatar would need to be truly self sufficient in food. Even if Qatar were to lower expectations to produce 1.7 million tons of food per year, or about 64% of its total food needs—on par with the United Kingdom—an additional 30,000 hectares of soil would need to be reclaimed, says Mahmoud Ahmed Hashim, an agronomist from Sudan who heads the QNFSP’s agriculture program.

‘Reclaimed,’ of course, is a bit of a misnomer. “Imported” would be a better term, notes Hashim. He arranges a stapler, a tape dispenser and a couple of mobile phones in a rough square. “This is sabkha,” he says, tapping the desktop between his makeshift ‘dunes.’ He then mimes filling in the empty space with a mixture of sand and manure. But Qatar doesn’t produce enough manure to fill the gap. “It will have to be shipped in,” he says. How much? “About 2,000 tons of manure a year. Per hectare. For about a decade.” He waits a beat for the calculation to sink in. In order to produce 1.7 million tons of homegrown food a year, Qatar will have to import about 60 million tons of manure annually. That’s the yearly product of about 3 million dairy cows.

(MORE: Why It Was Silly for the Beef Industry to Freak Out Over USDA’s “Meatless Monday” Newsletter)

It will take about ten years for the soil to become self-sustaining. Even then, Qatar will always have to import fertilizer. “From an economic point of view, Qatari agriculture will never be sustainable,” says Hashim. But as long as the government is willing to subsidize the cost of advanced farming methods, the cost of desalinization and the cost of transporting water, Qatari farmers will be able to feed the population and make a living. “This is our culture in arid lands,” says Hashim. “You have problems, but you can over come them. As long as there is a budget.”

Budgets are rarely a problem in Qatar, which has become the richest country in the world, leveraging its massive gas reserves into a per-capita income of more than $88,000 for its 250,000 citizens. That wealth has allowed the country to make risky, but ultimately successful investments, from founding the satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera to a winning bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an undertaking expected to cost around$150 billion. In comparison, $25 billion to ensure the nation’s food supply might seem like a bargain. But like tomatoes, Qatar’s projects can only flourish in the hothouse environment of natural gas riches. And those riches are not guaranteed. World production of liquefied natural gas is expected to double in the next eight years as Australia and the US exploit their own shale gas reserves, potentially causing prices to plummet, says Dubai-based energy analyst Robin Mills. “If there is a significant fall in gas prices, [Qatar] will have to revisit all of these plans, and may have to scale back.”

Al-Attiya brushes those concerns aside. The money for the project has already been allocated, he says, and if anything, the QNFSP has been developed for a post-carbon resource reality. Citing an oft-repeated government slogan, he says that Qatar’s future will be dependent on its knowledge economy. “There will be payback from that $25 billion investment. The payback is that we have a strategic water reserve, we have mitigated our exposure to global risks, and we have intellectual property development and technology that can be exported elsewhere, profitably.”

With predictions that the world’s population will rise by a third over the next 20 years, that demands for food and energy will rise by half, and that fresh water will become ever more scarce, investing in food security technology is not necessarily a risky gamble, notes Clemens Breisinger of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. However, he adds, “From an economic point of view, there might be smarter ways to invest that money than trying to green the desert.” He estimates that an additional billion dollars spent on research and development in Sub-Sahara Africa could raise cereal production there by three million tons a year, 15 times more than Qatar’s annual consumption. “Why not invest in productivity enhancing measures in areas with greater agricultural potential, thus securing your imports?” he asks. “Helping others doesn’t just have to be altruistic.”

For Al-Attiya, such criticisms miss the point. Sixty-eight countries are considered too arid for adequate agriculture, a number likely to rise as global warming turns wet regions wetter and dry lands drier. Few of those countries have the resources to invest in food security research. By using its wealth to tackle the issue head on, says Al-Attiya, Qatar is not only providing a solution for its own problems, but lowering the costs of research for everyone else. One such example is an experimental farm just off Qatar’s only four-lane highway. Three years ago researchers from the Ministry of Environment’s biotechnology center experimented with mixing salt-eating microbes into sabkha, which is twice as salty as seawater. Food crops, such as corn, watermelon and tomatoes, were sown directly into the prepared soil and irrigated with treated sewage water. Today that farm is a rare patch of green in a uniformly beige stretch of land. The plants have thrived, producing a bumper crop each year. Masoud Al-Marri, the center’s director, has yet to taste the vegetables, warning that they have not been tested yet for human consumption. Still, he did not stop a visitor from nibbling an ear of corn. It tasted sweet. Al-Marri smiled. “This is revolutionary,” he says. “If we can succeed with this, everything will change.” Not just for Qatar, but for the world.

(MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive)