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Noushad Thekkayil / EPA

Qatar blockade is a warning to all desert countries that rely on imported food

The wealthiest nation on the planet is facing a sudden experience of what poverty might be like, if relationships with its neighbours are not restored. Though Qatar has an extraordinary per capita income of US$130,000, compared with around US$57,000 in the US, it has a glaring weakness – the small desert peninsula imports around 90% of its food.

This has come to a head as a result of the blockade placed around Qatar by neighbouring members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, who accuse it of supporting militants. It furiously denies the claim. Because most of Qatar’s food had previously arrived across its only land border with Saudi Arabia, the blockade created the potential for imminent shortages, food inflation and unrest. Severe food shortages have only been averted thanks to urgent new deals with Iran and Turkey, which are flying and shipping food in.

Qatar is an important example of a nation potentially made complacent by its wealth. Why cultivate your own food when you can simply buy it in? The country also has a major food waste problem exacerbated by a regional culture of social extravagance. It appears to have given little attention to securing resilience within its food supply chains.

Saudi Arabia has deported at least 15,000 camels back to Qatar. The animals had been grazing on land across the Saudi border. Noushad Thekkayil / EPA

The blockades have exposed Qatar’s lack of domestic food production. Its hot, dry climate means most land is unsuitable for agriculture, and costs are high. The local food industry therefore does not have the knowledge, expertise or infrastructure to compete with cheaper, sometimes “loss leader” ranges of food imports that are seeking to create an anchor presence in anticipation of other food ranges to follow. Huge economic inequality also plays a role: wealthy, status-conscious Qataris prefer higher quality imported food, while at the other extreme a cost-conscious imported workforce cannot afford to be choosy.

So what can be done? The connections between food, water and energy are at the heart of security issues in many parts of the world – and Qatar is no different. Huge oil and gas reserves mean the country is obviously rich in energy, but it needs secure supplies of all three to underpin its development. Qatar at least has the financial resources to invest, reducing its reliance on others in respect of food and water.

Desalination plants have been used since the 1950s in the Middle East to convert seawater for drinking and agriculture. But the financial and environmental costs are unsustainable: it has been estimated that the 30 desalination plants in Saudi Arabia rely on around 300,000 barrels of crude oil each day. Solar-powered desalination plants look to be the future as they are capable of producing a litre of water for around 2 cents (compared with US$1 for a litre by conventional desalination plants), but it still isn’t certain whether these plants can be deployed quickly and cheaply at the sort of scale required.

Costly and unsustainable green lawns on the outskirts of Doha. Philip Lange / shutterstock

To get its food industry going, Qatar needs to promote new generations of “agro-preneurs”. They’ll need to be backed with subsidies, business-friendly start-up policies and the necessary capital for facilities. The fledgling enterprises will need an ecosystem of knowledge and expertise in agriculture to demonstrate how they can become established in local markets and be more attractive than imported goods. Limited land mass and already large numbers of small individual plots means that creating some sort of “Qatar National Food Corp” would not be easy – but not impossible.

Current legislation tends to encourage rather than limit food waste – and this needs to be reversed. Qatar has a system of strict expiry dates, with no “best before”. This affects consumer attitudes and, in a more major way, that of retailers. Any expired products are often sent to landfill as this is cheaper than returning them to distant manufacturers.

Smart marketing and widespread education is needed to change “normal behaviour” among consumers who currently reject “non-perfect” foods, see excess food as rubbish, and prefer luxury global brands as a definition of status. A culture of good hospitality and buffets for every social occasion and event isn’t helping the food waste problem. In particular, Qataris will need to learn to accept the lower standard (at least initially) of food produced locally by an immature industry but one with much potential for enhancement.

A combination is needed of new enterprise, new regulations to limit waste and new technologies. Here, Qatar should develop its own research, and become a leading innovator in technology designed to grow, transport and store food even in an arid climate – it certainly has the resources.

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