»A moon landing for desert countries«
Interview: Christoph Dreyer
Qatar wants to immunize itself against global food crises. Talking to zenith, the head of Qatari National Program for Food Security, Fahad Al-Attiya, explains how to restructure the country and what he expects from foreign investors.
zenith: How does Qatar define food security, and through which main elements do you want to achieve it?
Fahad Al-Attiya: The National Master Plan will be complete hopefully by the end of 2014, and implementation will take about ten years. So we should see the system fully running and operating by 2024. By that time we should hopefully be food secure by achieving three objectives: domestic production, priority one; trade, priority two; strategic reserve, priority three. What we mean by domestic production is that we should work to overcome the environmental and natural constraints to producing food under severe circumstances: shortage of water, weather conditions. That is not to say that Qatar seeks to be self-sufficient. But it is to reduce its dependency on food imports to a level whereby, if a global crisis was to occur, Qatar’s domestic and national situation is fairly intact.
What are the practical implications of the other two objectives?
The second element is to create a trading hub, whereby food can be transited through Qatar to bigger markets. Given that Qatar is a small country with a small population, we lack the economies of scale, and that makes the volatility of food prices extreme in Qatar. This is affecting our economy. So the idea is to solve this problem by hedging, and by creating business opportunities for food and food logistics companies to use Qatar as a preferred entry point into their markets and create volume. And as a consequence of that we should hopefully be able then to reach a scale by which we can buy our food at a reasonable rate even though that food is destined to bigger markets, not ours. The third one is strategic reserve, whereby there will be strategic pile stocks of food that could extend between one to three years, depending on what we can achieve, reasonably speaking.That of course is our last resort, and hopefully we should never even have to use that.
was appointed Chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) by Qatar’s Heir Apparent Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in 2008. Since 2007 Al-Attiya has been legal counsel to Sheikh Tamim at the Emiri Diwan. Under Al-Attiya’s leadership, the QNFSP is tasked to develop a Master Plan for food security by the end of 2014.
You haven’t mentioned buying farmland in other parts of the world, which is what some other countries do. Why not?
The reason is sovereignty of food. It’s not a problem investing in agricultural land abroad. There are huge tracks of land that are completely undeveloped in Africa, in Asia, in South America. Developing it is basically good for the world at large. But it doesn’t necessarily secure the investor’s food supply. Because if you plan for a global worst case scenario, then the worst case scenario is going to happen in all countries. And a lot of countries, we have seen in the past, have resorted to export restrictions. So the question is, why wouldn’t they do that in the future? I don’t say this because we fear that someone may target Qatar as such. But the rise of the middle class in China and India, climate change impacts on rainfall, agricultural land going to biofuel and so on – all these circumstances will converge one day and will create another crisis. And the idea is, how can you mitigate that crisis, and what would be the best way of doing so? Investing in a foreign land is good, but it does not translate into national security, because that foreign land has its own sovereignty. Does that mean we should not invest? No, don’t get me wrong. Invest! But it doesn’t alleviate the responsibility on you to try and secure your food from domestic resources which means investing in science, investing in research, applying best practice, adapting technologies. So the outcome of pursuing a national agricultural objective could result in innovation and intellectual property and solutions that could benefit not only Qatar but the entire dryland world.
Still, the fact that domestic production does play an important role in your concept seems somewhat surprising looking at Qatar’s climatic conditions. If self-sustainability is not a realistic objective; but how far can you get on that path?
Who am I to say an arbitrary figure? Let the research people do that, let the farmers come up with their figure. If it ends up at 60 or 70 percent – brilliant! If science manages to tell you we can take it to 80 percent – perfect! Or we can go further. We allow the science to try and challenge the circumstances all the time without putting any arbitrary line above them. I can say with confidence from our initial estimates and research that this country can achieve 60 percent through domestic production – of course provided that it is subject to zero export. Because then you produce for what you need, and not for global markets. Global markets have an infinite appetite, they will break your system.
How much sense does it make to include livestock production in your plan, considering the large amount of resources this will require?
Livestock, for us, is important because we need to protect our biodiversity, and importing livestock is a threat to the biodiversity of this country. And it has been decided that we have to produce our protein domestically. But we can supplement the feed from imports. You can actually have a lot of feed that is stored over longer periods, and the rest of the feed can come from domestic production. But also you need to think of how to strengthen the fishery industry, because it is a very good source of protein. That is also part of the plan. So there’s agriculture, there’s fishery and there’s livestock.
Why is energy generation an integral part of the food security strategy?
In Western nations they don’t have to have energy to get water. They have energy to do everything else – to industrialize, to grow and other things. But in our economies we have to use energy as an ultimate feedstock for water generation. That is truly a new concept, unprecedented before in history. Because cities around the globe, from the creation of mankind, have alway lived next to waters. So it is a precedent that the GCC develops in the driest spot of the world. The question is: How can the GCC sustain itself and maintain the assets that we have developed? The Food Security Programme comes to hopefully answer that question by 2024: by producing water using solar power; by distributing that water to the farmers using dedicated distributing networks; by telling the farmers to transition from ancient farming techniques to 21st century techniques which are more water efficient; by preserving our national resources such as aquifers and our reservoirs and making them our strategic water reserves, because once you desalinate water using solar power there’s no need anymore to use the aquifers.
How big will the role of solar power and other renewable energies be?
We are going to produce 1800 megawatt of solar power that will power a 3.5 million cubic meter per day plant. So hopefully all the water that we will produce for our agricultural purposes shall come from renewable energy sources. That, if achieved, means a huge breakthrough; it is similar in importance to sending someone to moon. Because the ripple effect is going to be huge. It will potentially be the first dryland country in the world that achieves a level of food security using renewable energy sources. And that means the model itself could be exportable to other nations that have similar circumstances to ours. There are about two billion people who live in drylands. So the problem is set to grow, and we are happy and prepared to share this experience with other nations around the world that have similar circumstances.
How much of the technologies you will need to put your master plan into practice will still have to be developed?
Very little. Most of the technologies that we are talking about are there. They just need to be adapted to our environment, and the adaptation process, as far as we can see, it is not a complicated one. For instance, the solar systems are already applied in many drylands and therefore the efficiency reductions that are caused by dust or other issues are being dealt with as we speak. There are also other systems that are very suitable for our climate conditions. I think the research will come in mainly in the agricultural sector regarding seeds, seed development, how to increase yields, how to create crops that are water efficient, heat resistant crops etc. And if major breakthroughs come in that sector it means that they are equally applicable to all other dryland countries.
When and how will you decide on the specific technologies you are going to employ, e.g. for your solar power installations?
We are keeping it open for the developers. Because the focus on the development of the Food Security Programme is leaning heavily towards the private sector. The government will only provide the enabling tools and seed investments, be it the investment for doing the master plan, the investment for building the education and research institutions, the investment for underwriting or securitizing or insuring or even giving financing facilities, technology support. But what we seek is that this whole system should be provided by the private sector, and the public sector should only enable that role and of course regulate it.
What role will foreign investors have to play in this?
There will be plenty of opportunities, particularly on the technological aspects. We’re trying to incentivize foreign investors to come and do direct investments in these sectors in the power sector, in the water sector. But we also try to get them to make industrial investments in the technology sector, particularly those that relate to renewable energy, water, agriculture and food. So we will certainly encourage German firms, European and other firms to consider Qatar as their industrial hub for these technologies. A lot of these technologies, once produced in Qatar, will definitely have preferential treatment, and we will support their spread even beyond the borders of Qatar given that this is supporting a domestic industrial base. So with that, companies in Germany can benefit from these incentives.
Very often, in this region, you need a domestic partner who then owns 51 percent of the company you set up here. Will that also be the case for this kind of investments?
I don’t think in our situation it will be considered within the next few months. Because it could be in a free zone situation, it could be 100 percent ownership if those industries are deemed by the state as strategic and have to be developed. We already have exemptions in four areas: health, education, industries and tourism. You can have 100 percent ownership in industries in Qatar; you don’t have to have a local partner. So if the idea is whether local partners are required for those high-tech industries, I would say no.
When will be the time for foreign investors to start looking for opportunities related to your program?
The time is now to come and look and evaluate and try to understand. But the time for them to roll out and start implementing will be from 2014 onward. But in order for someone to come and start building something from 2014, they need to come and just learn a bit about the market.
Some of what you’re aiming at does not only involve technical issues, but will require an informed public who takes part and contributes to it on an everyday basis. What are you planning to do in that regard, also taking into consideration the fluctuation of your large expat population?
There are multiple tracks of getting the public behind it, and first of all is the voluntary track.You want a public that is informed and understands the risks that the country is facing, without creating any fear or irritation to their day-to-day lives, but rather getting them to act more responsibly over resources that are very scarce. That could happen through engaging youth, engaging children at school and infusing those values at that level, and then engaging their parents as well. Then, of course, you need to think of the wider population, the expatriate community and others, to also get them engaged in some of the issues that affect the country that provides them with livelihood. Because, of course, the prosperity and continuous growth of this country certainly contributes to their own prosperity. So the idea is to infuse a lot of these values to the expatriate community, and I believe that people have these values. You just need to strengthen them and reinforce them and remind them. It’s not that they live a wasteful life.
What about non-voluntary measures?
The non-voluntary track is more about regulating some of the waste, or taxing, and is to follow what some developed nations have done in terms of waste management and waste taxation. You don’t really target food or target what people consume and add any charges or taxes on that. But rather you look at the waste and focus on that and say, if someone’s waste is excessive then someone ought to take responsibility and pay maybe a little more. There are measures that we’re thinking about on how to curb that waste and manage it, which will definitely have an impact on someone’s consumption; so if those people who consume have excessive waste, they will try to revise that.
If you look at the situation here today – e.g. considering energy waste, or the paramount role of cars in Qatar – how long a way do you still have before you to get people to this point?
These car users are not the ones to blame for the design of a city that forces them to use cars. What can a person do? Should he not go to work because he’s trying to save on energy? Should he not take his son to school? Should he not go buy his grocery, because that’s again burning energy to get your day-to-day needs? The city is designed precisely to promote the automobile. So I am in favor of re-designing our cities in a way that restricts the use of automobiles, and of course the energy that is used in getting around to your day-to-day activities, which will essentially cut down the waste of that energy that is used. And it will have a positive effect on your health, on your social and economic situation. So some of that wasteful behavior is not the option of the individuals but rather something above and beyond their will.
How much money can you put into this huge transformation of a whole society and country?
It is going to be substantial. Once the design of the entire system is complete we will be able to estimate the entire cost of implementing it. But the overall cost will be definitely split between the private sector and the public.
Being that your ambition is to provide food security and build up your agricultural sector in an environmentally friendly way, could that at some point impose limits on your population growth?
Food security in any nation has to take into account the population growth. Because what I can make secure for a million people might not be secure for two million, or three or five. For our Food Security Programme, we factored in that the population would be double of what it is today. If it goes beyond that, then of course we need to see how the system can cope and whether the system needs any further improvements and whether science and technology can provide the answers, hopefully. So these are questions that will remain open, but of course need to be carefully monitored and revisited from time to time.