QATAR eyes 60% cut in food import …supports supply independency

Qatar hopes to reduce its near complete dependency on imported food by 60% in 12 years after rolling out an ambitious multi-billion dollar government-backed food security programme.

Oil and gas exports may have made Qatar one of the richest per capita nations in the world but with an average rainfall of just 80mm per year, like other Gulf states it relies on desalinated seawater for nearly all its freshwater needs and imports almost 95% of its food. “We will not put an artificial cap on what we can produce – we will incentivise production to the maximum level possible,” the chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), Fahad bin Mohamed al-Attiya, told Zawya Dow Jones in an interview. QNFSP aims to increase domestic food production so Qatar can meet around two-thirds of its needs. Part of the plan involves building desalination plants that run on renewable energy and improving the quality of the soil to boost crop yields and the country’s food reserves in an emergency.

The scheme was set up four years ago by HH the Heir Apparent Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani following sharp global food prices rise in 2007-2008 triggered by high oil prices and droughts. Qatar is exposed to myriad political, economic, health and disease-related risks associated with buying food from abroad, al-Attiya said. “Anything that happens outside our borders to food production or food supply chains is not subject to our control.”

“We get the brunt of the impact that results out of food shortages, food crises, exports bans, climatic condition changes.” Qatar spent about QR3.5bn ($961mn) on food imports this year, al-Attiya said, a figure that is set to rise almost 15% in 2013 because of a fast-growing economy and population, mainly made up of foreign workers needed for a huge state-funded infrastructure building programme for the 2022 soccer World Cup. Through Hassad Food, the agricultural arm of Qatar’s $140bn sovereign wealth fund, the state has bought farmland in Sudan and Australia in recent years. Near total reliance on imports makes food expensive in Qatar and subject to huge price volatility, al-Attiya said.

Food, beverage and tobacco costs rose 5.8% in September on an annual basis compared to the same month last year, Qatar’s official consumer price index showed. “Households cannot plan or budget their food expenditure and that has become a troubling situation which we had to tackle,” he said. Qatar’s food security programme is in design stage and will be implemented over 10 years from 2014 and completed in 2024. So far, $300mn has been invested in the project, but al-Attiya said the implementation process would cost “billions of dollars” with roughly 50% of funding coming from the government and the rest from the private sector. He brushes off suggestions the plan lacks economic sense. “Mitigating the risk is in itself a gain, not a loss” he said. “Food security planning is for the worst case scenario, not for the good days,” al-Attiya said.

Source: Caye Global News, Gulf Times, Reuters

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