Why are they growing tomatoes in Qatar?
Dr. Ali El Kharbotly, a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is a consultant to the Biotechnology Center in Qatar. In June 2013 he spoke on food security and safety to the Ecosystem for Sustainable Growth Services Workshop in Dublin, Ireland. His experience in Qatar may prove to be relevant to both rich and poor countries working to feed their people in the face of changing environmental conditions. He said:
Although Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, its food security is in critical condition. Qatar relies on other countries for its food supplies, even for the basic food requirements. This places the food security situation beyond the control of the country. The productivity of the agricultural sector is limited due to harsh environmental conditions, water scarcity, limited amounts of arable land, low acreage productivity and institutional constraints.
Qatar is situated on a peninsula on the east of Saudi Arabia. Like its neighbor, it is hot and dry. Sand storms add to the inhospitable environment. In an article in the March 2012 issue of on-line magazine Qatar Today, journalist Peter Larson recounts the steps Qatar researchers are taking to develop tomato plants resistant to Qatar’s heat and drought, and the impetus behind their efforts.
Qatar imports 90% of its food. When global food prices skyrocketed in 2008, Qatar officials realized that the time may come when this oil-rich nation cannot afford to pay the price for imported food. Regional instability also played a role in the decision to pursue self-sufficiency. As Nelson quotes Dr. Kharbotly, “We don’t want to say today we are happy, and the next generation can solve its own problems. It can’t be like that.”
Dr. Kharbotly studies genetic characteristics, looking for those which make tomato varieties that can grow in Qatar’s climate. Success not only secures Qatar’s future. As similar climatic conditions spread to other parts of the world, Qatar’s expertise becomes exportable for applications elsewhere. Applying biotechnology to food production effectively makes Qatar’s hostile environment into an opportunity for development of a private sector agricultural business.
The government’s efforts to achieve food security go beyond genetic research. Like other sovereign countries, Qatar has formed a government entity using sovereign wealth funds to invest in agriculture overseas. Hassad Food Company has invested $500 million to buy a majority stake in India’s Bush Foods Overseas Ltd. Bush produces rice, coffee, cardamom, and ready-made foods. Hassad has also invested in agricultural land in recognition of the limitations of Qatar’s amount of arable land.
So what is the answer to the question, “Why are they growing tomatoes in Qatar?” In a very forward-looking move, Qatar is addressing several issues. It is working toward food security and sustainability for its own population, as well as climate change affecting many countries. Fears of political instability also influence Qatar’s interest in being self-sufficient. Expanding its expertise in biotechnology provides an economic engine for growth that can provide income well into the future.