Living off the sea: Food security and sustainability garner government attention

Farming and fishing play important roles in the economy: over half the local population and some 7.8% of expatriate workers are employed in these industries, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Most use traditional techniques that have been in practise for centuries, but commercial enterprises have gained a foothold in the sector and lead in terms of innovation and efficiency. Meanwhile, a government drive to increase the sector’s share of GDP, and the challenges posed by water shortages and over-fishing, are underwriting a new era of advanced farming and fishing.

Agriculture Structure

Agriculture was primarily based on subsistence methods before the process of national modernisation, which began with the accession to power of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The emergence of crop cultivation and animal husbandry was dictated by the country’s varied topography: often called the nation’s backbone, the Hajjar mountain range runs in a great arc from the north west of the country to the south eastern region and contains isolated fertile wadis (seasonal riverbeds) suitable for farming. Water flows from these serve the coastal Batinah region, which extends northwards from Muscat to the border with the UAE, and is home to many of the nation’s farms and orchards. On the other side of the Hajjar range, water run-off and oases form the basis of farming in the interior. The Dohar region benefits each year from south-westerly monsoon winds that bring rain to create lush pastures for the raising of cattle.

The low precipitation levels which across most of the country have given rise to one of the most distinctive features of the Omani agricultural sector – the falaj. This is an ancient irrigation and water management systems of vertical shafts that tap into the water contained in porous rock and releases it through a sloping tunnel to a lower surface level or underground cistern. They often extend for many kilometres and still supply most of the water for agricultural purposes in Oman’s arid areas. The coastal plain of the Al Batinah region, where the water table can be as high as two metres below the surface, sees the most concentrated farming activity in Oman and accounts for around two-fifths of the total land area under cultivation. The use of modern irrigation techniques, like diesel pumps, has increased the cultivatable arable land over recent years, which stood at 73,500 ha in 2010, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth (MoAFW).

Agricultural Production

This expansion of arable land has led to an increase in agricultural production. Between 2005 and 2008, according to MoAFW figures, total production went from around 989,000 tonnes to 1.2m tonnes. The MoAFW’s data for 2010, the most recent available, shows year-on year production increases in all of the major crop-growing segments: perennial fodder crops was up by 43% over 2009, vegetable production increased by 41% and fruits rose by 14.3%. Field crops, which are generally only planted on a large scale in years when there have been good rains, were the only recorded decline, at 43.6%. Tomatoes are the single largest vegetable crop in Oman, at 271,468 tonnes in 2010, followed by watermelon (19,067 tonnes) and aubergine (18,436 tonnes). Of the field crops, sugar cane is the most widely produced (10,361 tonnes), followed by wheat (3184 tonnes) and barley (2153 tonnes). Fodder crops like Rhode grass (549,746 tonnes) and alfalfa (276,767 tonnes) account for the largest annual yields of all, followed by the cultivation of Oman’s famous dates (276,405 tonnes) – which headline a fruit crop segment that also includes a sizeable yield of banana (56,686 tonnes) and mango (10,199 tonnes).

Livestock data for Oman show a similar growth trend.

Cow, camel, goats and sheep populations have all risen since the last major agricultural census of 2004/05. As of 2011, goats represented the largest component (1.75m) of a diversified livestock base that also includes sheep (396,000), cattle (339,000) and camels (132,000).

A high proportion of cattle are kept for milk production only, but recent decades have seen an increasing amount of beef shipped from the southern pastures to the northern regions, where demand is rising. In 2011, livestock products in Oman included 2.45m tonnes of red meat, 4.1m tonnes of poultry meats, 7.1m tonnes of milk and 213m eggs, according to MoAFW data.

Fisheries Structure

Oman’s 3165 km of coastline, much of which lies in close proximity to a deep drop-off ocean shelf with a nutrient-rich seasonal upwelling, has given rise to a fishing tradition which dates back centuries. A small population and minimal pollution has preserved these conditions, and to this day many of the residents of a multitude of towns and villages along Oman’s unspoilt coast engage in traditional capture fisheries activity – which the MoAFW estimates employs more than 36,000 nationals. Individual fishermen, many utilising traditional canoes with the addition of an outboard motor, still account for the majority of the nation’s annual catch, which includes a wide array of staple and lucrative species as well as rare and valuable delicacies such as kingfish, lobster and abalone. More recently, commercial trawler fleets entered the market, focusing their operations on the pursuit of bottom-feeding fish. However, environmental concerns and the threats posed to traditional fishing communities by indiscriminate trawling led to a complete ban on deep-sea trawl fishing in 2009 which, after a two-year grace period, began in June 2011.

Fisheries Production

Regulatory changes concerning fishing practices have not adversely affected production levels. In 2010 total fish landings amounted to 167.000 tonnes, a 3.4% rise over the prior year’s catch of 158,500 tonnes. While seafood remains a staple of the Omani diet, the sultanate has successfully established itself as a major exporter of fish products, sending around half of its catch abroad each year (a total of 87,000 tonnes in 2010). The UAE is the sultanate’s largest export market for fish products, taking 57% (49,560 tonnes) of the total export volume in 2010, followed by the rest of the GCC (19.5%), Asia (7%), Middle Eastern and North African nations (6.9), the European Union (2.7%) and Africa (1%). In terms of export varieties, as with the total catch a broad range of species have been successfully delivered to export markets. In 2010, the top five species by export value were sardines, emperor fish, Indian mackerel, sea bream and cuttlefish, according to the MoAFW.

Commercialisation 

Both the agricultural and fisheries sectors are dominated by small, family-run operations. According to the last census of 2004/05, average farm size across all regions was 1 ha. In the same year, MoAFW data shows that the traditional fishing sector, using traditional means, accounted for up to 85% of total fish landings. Nevertheless, a small number of large-scale commercial operators have successfully established themselves in both sectors. The Batinah-based Nehad Agronomy services, established in 1979, claims to be the first commercial farming enterprise in Oman, starting operations with 20 acres and expanding to 1400 today. It has an annual turnover in excess of $5m, and has established lines of export in the region and as far as Japan and the Seychelles.

Tawoos Agriculture Systems, part of a larger group which includes interests in power and telecommunications, oil and gas and hotels, was established in 1989 and presently operates its main farming operation on 320-ha site near Sawadi on Oman’s Batinah coast. Since its inception it has increased its production capacity from 2000 to 20,000 tonnes of vegetable crops, which are sold in the domestic market and exported to certain niche markets in East Asia and Europe.

Livestock

On the livestock side, A’Safwah Dairy, part of Cattle Feed Company, is a publicly-traded entity and the largest single-site dairy farm in the sultanate, while AgroDev is the largest integrated poultry project in Oman, and it heavily involved in trading commodities like rice. Other major agricultural players include Modern Poultry Farms, the sultanate’s largest egg producer, and Sohar Poultry and Gulf Mushrooms, which operates the largest mushroom farm in the Middle East.

Oman Fisheries, a joint stock company established by royal decree in 1989, is the largest fishing company in the sultanate, and one of around 10 firms that fish, process and distribute fish products to both the domestic and foreign markets. Since the deep-sea trawling ban in 2011, it now runs a coastal fleet of around 10 vessels as well as sourcing fish from a network of traditional operators. Its processing, manufacturing and cold storage facilities are distributed throughout Oman. In 2012 it exported to 33 markets, with East Asia accounting for the majority of overseas sales.

The agricultural sector is also serviced by several large suppliers, like Al Marooj for Agriculture Service and Trade (trading fertilisers, pesticide chemicals and seeds) and other sizeable players that have established downstream production operations, like Dhofar Beverage and Foodstuff Company, a regional supplier of juices, sodas, water and a variety of food products.

Challenges

Oman’s agriculture and fisheries sector faces several challenges. An arid climate and scarcity of water for crop cultivation have always limited development, but are now more acute as increased well usage has lowered the water table in coastal regions and allowed for the encroachment of seawater. Food security is also a challenge. “Food security is not only cultivating and storing crops, but also overseeing logistics and proper marketing,” Saleh Mohammed Al Shanfari, the chairman of A’Saffa Foods, told OBG. Despite increasing production levels, Oman is a net importer of many basic agricultural products: as of 2010, Oman had achieved 71% self-sufficiency in milk, 62% in eggs, 71% in vegetables and 24% in poultry meat. While these figures represent a leap from over a decade ago, Oman’s reliance on imports makes it vulnerable to exogenous shocks from global food shortages or price rises.

On the fisheries side, concerns about the sustainability of capture fishing peaked in 2011 when a University of Malaysia Terengganu report revealed lower yields and increasing vessel numbers, with Al Batinah and Dhofar identified as particularly over-fished. Migration from rural to urban areas and wage competition from the industrial sector from subsidised producers also presents a major challenge to some private sector players in both sectors. Fishery firms, in particular, find it difficult to source workers with sufficient knowledge of modern fishing and production processes. Some, such as Oman Fisheries, have training programmes for nationals and have begun to send Omanis abroad to mature markets to be trained in modern techniques. The government, too, has moved to address the problem with two fishing institutes which provide training to Omani youth in coastal and open sea navigation, modern fishing equipment and quality control.

Development Strategy

The government, through the MoAFW, is also playing a leading role in addressing the rest of the sector’s challenges, and does so in accordance with the long-term policy objectives established by the Vision 2020 national strategy document. Formed in 1995, one of Vision 2020’s goals is to boost agricultural and fishing activity’s contribution to GDP to 5.1%. To do so the MoAFW must reverse the decline in the sector’s total GDP contribution over the last two decades, from 2.8% in 1995 to 2% in 2000 to 1.5% in 2011, according to the Ministry of Finance. While this contraction is as much the result of the rapid growth of Oman’s industrial sector as the stagnation of agricultural and fishing activity, meeting the Vision 2020 target will require both investment and structural reform.

The government’s eighth five-year plan for development from 2011-15 is a strategic supplement to the national long-term strategy and provides the MoAFW with a development framework. The government will invest OR200m ($521m) in projects in the sector, including OR3.2m ($8.3m) for date palm trees, OR4.4m ($11.5m) for an animal immunisation programme and OR8.4m ($22m) for the integrated management of date palm tree pests. On the fisheries side, OR26.6m ($59m) was earmarked to construct fishing ports in Barka, Al Musanah, Muhout, Sadah and Al Shuiymiah, and OR9.6m ($25m) has been allocated for infrastructure to raise the quality of fisheries and pisciculture, and a further OR8.6m ($22m) is to be spent on establishing facilities in several fisheries and landing areas. Approximately 4% of the expenditure outlined in the nation’s eighth five-year plan will go to agriculture and fisheries.

The MoAFW is also deploying a complementary medium-term plan in conjunction with the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development. Formulated in 2010, the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development of Agriculture aims to raise crop and vegetable yields by implementing sustainable, technology-driven improvements in areas like irrigation and fertiliser use. The Public Authority for Stores and Food Reserve (PASFR) was founded in 1980 and is charged with ensuring the supply of basic food commodities for the population in Oman. PASFR has created stores to hold minimum reserves of staples like rice, sugar, lentils, milk powder, teal, wheat and edible oils. In 2010 it formulated a plan to safeguard the national food supply in the event of a global food shortfall, which relies on the agency’s warehouses in Rusayl, Sohar, Nizwa and Dhofar, as well as a number of new silos currently under construction.

Two New Directions

On the agricultural side, the problem of water availability has led to heightened interests in the potential of hydroponic technology. After completing a series of lengthy trials, the MoAFW in 2012 announced a project to cultivate lettuce and cucumbers in a hydroponic greenhouse. The efficiency of such closed-circuit water systems has attracted international private sector interest (see analysis).

The MoAFW is also harnessing new technology to promote sustainable fishing. Since the 1990s it has conducted research and established regulations with a view to creating a viable aquaculture industry in Oman. While such activity remains low, based largely on shrimp production, the MoAFW recently launched an initiative to attract major investment to the segment. Detailed research on business potential in terms of both species and location has been made available to interested parties, and incentives for start-ups established.

Outlook

Despite the challenges faced by the agriculture and fisheries sector, its prioritisation in the national strategy and the existence of a clearly defined government investment programme underpin its future development. Ultimate success, however, will depend on the government’s ability to encourage private investment. The success of the partnership that created quasi-government and private agricultural businesses augurs well for future growth in this sector, and the recent announcement of a $23m hydroponic project in Barka which will utilise Spanish expertise represents a useful fillip for this new field. The MoAFW is now turning its focus to attract similar investment to the potentially sector-changing aquaculture industry.

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The Report: Oman 2013

Agriculture & Fisheries chapter from The Report: Oman 2013

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