Friday, 4 December 2009

Securing Saudi Arabia's food supply - migrations, farms overseas & irrigation

From 25th to 29th November about 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world made the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The event triggered a man-made animal migration to feed the pilgrims. For the first time in nine years, some of the livestock was supplied by Somalia, as Saudi Arabia lifted its long term ban on imports of Somali livestock, which it had imposed due to concerns over health screening of the animals. The lifting of the ban meant that Somalia’s monthly livestock exports could double to 1 million animals, with 60,000 ready to be exported within a few days, for the Hajj. This is indicative of the scale of food imports to the Middle East for the burgeoning population and tourism, and the dependence on food exports for some poor African countries. Livestock exports make up 40 per cent of Somalia’s GDP, whilst Saudi Arabia spends $6 billion per year on food imports.

View Larger MapSomalia’s Bossaso Port will be upgraded to enable it to cope with the increased livestock exports. But other African countries are vying to increase their exports of livestock to Saudi Arabia and the supply chain could extend further into Africa. In 2008, a farmer in Nigeria’s Zamfara state said that he lost out on the opportunity of a contract to supply Saudi Arabia with 150,000 slaughtered rams per month to the Saudi Arabia government because of a lack of storage facilities at Nigeria’s airports. It was reported that state approval for the requisite cargo airport for exporting fruit, vegetable and meat to the Middle East and Europe was fast tracked, taking just 3 months.

Along with sourcing more food from abroad, Saudi Arabia has long standing ambitious programmes attempting to increase its own food production, up against the ecological constraint of desert conditions unsuitable for agriculture and depending on gargantuan irrigation schemes. This article by Kelly McEvers is about the environmental cost of producing milk in the desert, in temperatures of up to nearly 50°C in the summer. The Afu-Safi diary farm in Saudi Arabia originated in the 1970’s. It was modelled on a dairy farm in California, but is twice the size holding 38,000 cows. Each cow requires over 100 litres of water per day and oil drilling technology was used to reach aquifers beneath the desert and. The aquifer is running dry and the dairy has been given permission to drill deeper underground to another aquifer 1.6 kilometres underground.

But the wheat growing which was also dependent on this source of water is being phased out. Saudi Arabia’s Hail Agricultural Development Company (Hadco) stopped producing wheat in 2008 and is purchasing land abroad. Hadco has already purchased 9,239 hectares of land in Sudan, and is considering purchasing another 32,755 hectares in Sudan within the next five years to grow wheat, corn and other crops to be used for feeding livestock. In January 2009 Saudi Arabia received the first batch of rice produced abroad.

Saudi Arabia has shifted the emphasis from attempts at increasing food self-sufficiency to extending the supply chain to source more food from other countries. Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, and Asian states, have purchased a total of over 20,230,000 hectares of land suitable for arable crops in Africa in the past two years, about ten per cent of the farmed land in Africa. This would secure food supply and stable prices for the wealthy importing countries. The likely outcomes for exporting countries like Sudan, which are unable to feed their own people, appear less favourable with widespread reports of aggressive land grabbing, lack of transparency over land deals and smallholders losing their land. There are reports, for example from the International Land Coalition, that Saudi Arabia is the most aggressive purchaser, establishing a chain of overseas farms at the scale of nearly 100,000 hectares. Saudi Arabia is also considering purchasing land in Ethiopia and in other regions outside Africa in Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Attempts to irrigate the dry Gulf states for agriculture persist though. In 2008 it was reported that UAE is conducting a study into the feasibility of building at least 70 dams in the northern emirates in an attempt to channel water supplies for food production in the region.

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