Saudi Arabia shifting focus to organic farming and less water-intensive crops

Although Saudi Arabia’s policy shift on self-sufficiency and wheat production over the last five years has garnered the most attention, the government has instituted a number of other plans to mitigate the effects of agricultural production on the country’s water reserves. One of the most important moves in this respect has been the emphasis on organic and greenhouse production, methods of farming that will place less of a burden on the water-stressed country.

Water Usage

Agriculture has been the leading consumer of water. However, given that as much as 80% of Saudi Arabia’s fossil water has been consumed, and is non-replenishable, the high level of consumption in the agricultural sector is unsustainable. The government’s decision to phase out wheat production is a positive step, but there are fears that unless this policy is applied to all areas of crop cultivation, water usage in the sector will continue to grow, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Saudi Arabia spent the last two decades of the 20th century establishing a modern, fully industrialised farming sector. Between 1985 and 2000, it invested $84bn in the local agricultural industry, one of the fruits of which was a fourfold increase in domestic food production between 1980 and 1990. The reality of water scarcity and shifting consumer habits have since led to a greater emphasis on smaller-scale farming, however.

Fruits such as oranges, mangoes and lemons have extremely low water requirements. The latter requires 2500 cm of water per ha, compared to wheat with a requirement of over 2m cm per ha and forage alfalfa with a need for more than 4m cm per ha. In 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, fruits and vegetables accounted for just under 50% of the crop area under cultivation. However, it is not simply about volume. Investors are looking at ways of improving yields, reducing water consumption and increasing profitability. Technologies such as hydroponics, cultivating crops in plastic tubes rather than soil, are beginning to gain a foothold in the market. The technique, which is employed by Ibrahim Abunayan farms in Riyadh, can use up to 80% less water than traditional techniques and can increase yields by as much as 40 times. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation is making a major contribution to sustainable production by funding the Estidamah Research Centre in Riyadh Techno Valley. The project, which is expected to begin operations in 2016, will help foster research and development (R&D) of greenhouse and hydroponic technologies. The centre will use nine different greenhouse design specifications to look into issues of sustainability and financial viability. The project, which has engaged experts from Wageningen University and Bom Greenhouses in the Netherlands, is looking to develop a prototype greenhouse for the specific conditions experienced in Saudi Arabia. The Dutch have a long history of using closed greenhouses and are looking to transfer this knowledge and technology to the Kingdom. Jouke Campen, the international project manager from Wageningen University, told MIT Technology Review, “In the Netherlands we produce 78 kg of crop in a closed greenhouse, but since Saudi Arabia has double the amount of natural light, the production per square metre is more than 100 kg.” There is also an expectation of substantial water savings given the efficiency rates of the existing technology. Campen told MIT Technology Review the closed system can produce 1 kg of tomatoes using only 4 litres of water, compared to a ratio of 60 litres per kg using a traditional greenhouse method.

Organic Produce

The R&D carried out at the Estidamah Research Centre should help farmers to boost produce output without proving a burden on the country’s scarce water resources. Alongside such projects, however, there are plans for smaller-scale, higher-value farming projects. In this respect, the government is also heavily pushing organic production. Ayman Al Ghamdi, director-general of the Organic Agriculture Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, told the local press in September 2014, “The number of certified organic farming was 10 in 2000. The awareness of the society was weak regarding organic products. Today, there are more than 112 organic farms certified according to Saudi organic standards.” Land under organic production has also been on the increase, reaching 33,709 ha in 2014, with a further 2889 ha currently undergoing conversion to organic production. This is the result of a concerted effort to raise the profile of organic farming. This began in 2007 with the establishment of the Saudi Organic Farming Association and continued with the foundation of the Department of Organic Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture in 2008. The government also converted the Qassim Farming Research Centre into an organic farming centre in 2011. This step has been reinforced by a commitment from the Saudi Food and Drugs Authority (SFDA) to redouble its efforts to monitor organic produce farmed for the domestic and export markets. But there is still much work to be done. Outlining the challenges facing the sector, Sultan Al Thunayyan, deputy head of the Council of Saudi Chambers’ Agricultural Committee, told the local Al Riyadh newspaper that there is a shortfall in investment in organic farming. “It is a field that is facing many obstacles, such as a lack of consumer awareness on the difference between organic and non-organic products, lack of sufficient organic seeds, fertilisers and pesticides available for farmers, a lack of experts and agricultural engineers in the Kingdom, and a need to import organic products,” he said.

Positioned For Growth

In 2014 a public awareness campaign was launched to promote the Saudi Organic logo, an accreditation brand. This should help build a market for farmers looking to convert to highvalue, low-intensity production. Al Ghamdi also told the local press that their effort “conveys a clear and strong message to all farmers that high-quality and healthy foods can be produced without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms”. Saudi Arabia has already positioned itself as the leading exponent of organic farming in the region. In 2009 the market in the Kingdom had an estimated value of around $270m, representing 90% of the organic food market in the GCC, according to Orient Planet, a Middle East-focused consultancy.

Given the shifting demographic dynamics of the Saudi market, farmers venturing down the organic path are likely to find a receptive customer base in the coming years, Abdulaziz Al Babtain, the managing director of the National Agricultural Development Company, told OBG. “The Kingdom has a young and growing population with increasing disposable income,” he said. “These trends are positive for food, dairy and beverages generally, with increasing availability and consumption of all these categories over the last few years. This trend is likely to continue, partly as a result of the size of the young population and also because of an increasing awareness of the importance of health and wellness among these younger consumers.” Indeed, a 2014 report by the Global Agricultural Information Network of the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service highlighted organic products as one of the best prospects when it comes to export potential.

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This article is from the Industry chapter of The Report: Saudi Arabia 2015. Explore other chapters from this report.