The blockade is as much an opportunity as a threat

 06 Jul 2017 - 20:22

The blockade is as much an opportunity as a threat to Qatar. It’s a spur to ensure the food supply issue is addressed head-on, with a commitment to a future of greater self-reliance and commitment to solving a localised global challenge.

Depending on imports for 90% of food supplies has been an expensive luxury that can’t continue: international supply chains are increasingly uncertain and stretched by demand; food security is a problem globally, including all the developed nations. Despite its agricultural heritage, for example, around 50% of the UK’s food and animal feed depends on imports.

Qatar’s lack of domestic capability has been exposed, the legacy of a local industry not able to compete with cheaper, sometimes loss leader ranges of imports that are seeking to establish a profile and place with local consumers, the high production costs associated with the local climate and ecology, immature supply chains, a lack of knowledge and expertise — and also a general preference among its consumers for higher quality imports in a status conscious market.

The nation has the economic resources to overcome most challenges from its natural environment.

Water is, of course, a basic issue for food production. Desalination plants — converting seawater for drinking water and agriculture — have been used since the 1950s in the Middle East. But financial and environmental costs of this approach are unsustainable. It’s been estimated that the thirty 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 - capable of producing a litre of water for around 2 cents (compared with $1 for a litre by conventional desalination plants) and are a high-potential investment opportunity. There’s now just a need for hard evidence of viability, and quickly, in terms of costs and scale.

First and foremost, Qatar needs to be promoting new generations of ‘agro-preneurs’, and that means backing them with subsidies, a framework of business-friendly processes for start-ups 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.

There is a role here for the state University to promote and develop local talent and to direct them to new growth areas that support the economy and ultimately the sustainability of a nation. Also, there will be many opportunities for intellectual discover; research that ranges from agriculture to animal husbandry, through to genetically modified crops and new management practices. This opens doors for global partnerships with other Universities and corporates alike.

Tackling food waste across the system, from field to plate, has the potential to have as important an impact as building local food production capabilities. Waste less, you need less.

So there is a need for action in terms of legislation — which currently encourages rather than limits food waste through the use of strict expiry dates, rather than the more flexible ‘best before’ labelling which encourages more thought and flexibility. The future will be shaped as much by decisions / habits from shoppers as the changes introduced by agribusiness and governments.

Smart marketing and widespread education is needed to change ‘normal behaviours’ among consumers: the rejection of ‘non-perfect’ foods, excess food just seen as rubbish, the preference for 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 become accepting of the potential (initially) of lower standards of locally-produced foods (that have the same nutritional value of imports), and an immature agriculture industry but one with much potential.

A combination is needed of new enterprise, new regulations to limit waste and new technologies for transportation, storage and dealing with the food-water-energy nexus – it is here where the Qatar Foundation through its generous Qatar National Research Fund has real potential to become a leading light and definer of innovation and thinking - and the Safeguarding Food and Environment in Qatar (SAFE-Q) project is an example of this.

Qatar can be a role model for the rest of the world, by being pro-active and creative in dealing with food security issues. As we are finding in the West, it’s complacency that’s the enemy.

Professor Irani is the head of Bradford University’s management school in the UK, and is part of the team running the Qatar National Research Fund project, Safeguarding Food and Environment in Qatar (SAFE-Q) with Cranfield and Brunel Universities in the UK and the University of Western Sydney.