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Roses In The Desert - How Qatar Hopes To End Its Dependence On Food Imports

The Roza Hassad greenhouses near Doha, Qatar
The Roza Hassad greenhouses near Doha, Qatar
Laurence Caramel

DOHA – Jean-Pierre Moreau is growing flowers in the desert.

Just 30 kilometers west of the Qatari capital of Doha, roses, gladiolus, chrysanthemum are blooming. At the request of Hamid Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, the Frenchman produces four million flowers a year, with the help of 60 employees mostly from Nepal and India.

Inside the greenhouses of Roza Hassad, which span over 55,000 square meters, it’s a far cry from the hot and rocky scenery outside. A very precise computer-managed regulation system adjusts the humidity and lighting levels every 30 seconds in each of the 16 greenhouses, recreating a tropical climate or the colder temperatures of the Netherlands, depending on the flowers.

The seeds are planted in bedrock made of coconut residue or volcanic rock and receive water drawn 100 meters deep, desalted, then charged with nutritious elements needed for their growth. Roza Hassad is a public company founded to cut down on the emirate’s flower imports.

This comes at a price – but Moreau would rather not talk about numbers. In a country where no project seems too crazy, money is not an issue and flowers are just “a first step.” “With money and the right technologies, we could grow tomatoes, peppers and all sorts of vegetables,” says Moreau who has already grown salads in the most extreme climates.

Food security is at the center of the Qatari government’s strategy presented in its “Vision 2030” plan. More than 90% of products eaten by the country’s two million residents (of which only 300,000 are Qataris) depend on imports.

In Doha’s main wholesale market, trucks unload Saudi eggplants, Lebanese or Chinese apples, Dutch tomatoes, Filipino bananas and Egyptian strawberries… And the same goes for meat and grains.

Securing food supplies

“We cannot imagine our development without securing our food resources. We support international trade but we also believe in climate change and its consequences on agriculture," says Fahad Ben Mohammed al-Attiya, president of the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP). "Some countries might have to reduce their exports in the future and we cannot remain so dependent.”

The program was launched in 2008 and was created with the help of numerous international experts. It should be finalized in the coming months and fully operational in 2014. “We didn’t invest for 20 years. Our agriculture uses old methods. Productivity is weak. A big part of our harvest is lost in stock. We need to bring skills, training and technology. Many believe it’s unrealistic – I think it will be revolutionary,” he says. He thinks it’s possible to cover 60% of food supplies.

Water scarcity is another issue that needs to be resolved. This is why Qatar is building new desalination factories that will run on solar energy. “700,000 cubic meters of water are used every day by the 1,400 farms in the country, but that water, drawn underground is increasingly brackish. Our programs aims to produce five times more,” says Patrick Linke, the technical director of the QNSFP. But can the sun really be profitable when fuel in this country only cost 20 cents per liter? Authorities have remained vague about the cost and the funding of the new project.

This refocusing on local production doesn’t mean Qatar is giving up buying land abroad. “We will continue because we need to. But we will do so while making sure that property rights of local populations and farmers are respected. These are investments, not land grabbing,” assures al-Attiya.

Early December in Doha, the QNFSP president rewarded the best projects of the Land for Life initiative, which is supported by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). He reiterated his country’s ambition to create a “global alliance of arid areas” that would imply mutual assistance between member countries. “A sort of food security NATO.” The African countries that were present welcomed the idea with a mix of curiosity and interest and are waiting to see what comes next.

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