Based on metrics such as the number of scientific papers published in the field, Saudi Arabia is the largest agricultural research centre in the GCC and one of the largest in the Middle East. While the level of research and development (R&D) activity in the Kingdom is low by the standards of major international agricultural research powerhouses, it has been rising rapidly in recent years. Issues such as the need to conserve scarce water resources are helping to drive the national R&D agenda, with a number of educational institutions as well as some private sector companies working to reduce consumption through the development of new technologies. In addition, some industry players are calling on the national and regional authorities to put more of an emphasis on research and innovation as part of the solution to food security problems, in light of the challenges facing current strategies.

RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS: The main educational institutions active in agricultural research in the Kingdom include King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh – which in addition to conducting scientific research of its own is also the national science agency and is responsible for the development of the Kingdom’s scientific research policy – King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal.

Agriculture is also one of 15 strategic technology areas identified by KACST as being of specific interest to the Kingdom in terms of its efforts to create a knowledge-based economy. Much of KACST’s agriculture-focused research is conducted under its biotechnology research programme (one of the 12 main research fields at the institution), which includes research into farming activities such as plant and animal breeding as well as bio-product and plant production.

The institution also carries out R&D focused on reducing agricultural waste under its environment research programme, and in December 2013 announced that it had allocated $2.67m worth of funding to 19 research projects on organic farming. KSU, meanwhile, has focused in particular on precision farming methods and water conservation in its farming research.

Agricultural research and innovation in the Kingdom is not limited to major educational institutions. For example, in the organic sector, which is relatively new in Saudi Arabia (see overview), a specialised institution – the Organic Agriculture Research and Development Centre in Unayzah, Al Qassim Province – carries out R&D into organic farming, with a particular focus on plant protection, horticultural and soil science, and biodiversity, as well as providing training and consultancy for local organic farmers. Major state-backed enterprises and private companies have also been carrying out agriculture-related research.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY: In October 2013 KACST published a strategic bench-marking review of agricultural scientific research and technological innovation that it had commissioned as part of its efforts to develop agricultural technology in the Kingdom. The study ranked Saudi Arabia as the 63rd country in the world in terms of the number of scientific papers published on agricultural technologies between 1995 and 2011, with the total number of agriculture-focused papers published by Saudi institutions over the period standing at 245. This placed the Kingdom first among GCC states, ahead of Oman on 131 papers, the UAE (96) and Kuwait (56). In the wider Middle East, Saudi Arabia ranked fourth and third in the Arab world, behind Turkey (3698 papers), Egypt (1043) and Syria (376).

The largest category of research by segment in terms of the number of papers published was food and feed, which accounted for 42% of articles over the period, followed by soil and irrigation (20%) and agriculture systems (17%). Within these categories, the largest subcategory of topics by number of papers published was food production, with 54 papers, followed by irrigation (40) and the use of greenhouses (35).

While the number of papers published in the Kingdom remains relatively small by the standards of major international research centres such as the US, the study found that it grew by an average compound annual growth rate of 42% between the years 2006 and 2011. This ranked the Kingdom in first place in the category among countries with similar levels of economic development (defined as states with nominal GDP values of within $200bn of total Saudi GDP), ahead of the UAE with 28% and Iran with 27%, and second in the Middle East, behind Oman (43%) and ahead of Kuwait (39%).

Indeed, scientific research on agriculture in the Kingdom as measured by the publication of papers appears to have taken off in recent years, from previously fairly constant – and low – levels; between 1995 and 2008 the number of papers published annually in the field by Saudi Arabian institutions ranged between a minimum of two and a maximum of 12, before rising to 16 in 2009, 31 in 2010 and 43 in 2011.

However, while output is growing fast, there remains work to be done as regards improving the relevance and impact of Saudi research in the field. According to the study, scientific papers on agriculture published by local institutions were cited on average 3.7 times each, ranking the Kingdom towards the bottom end of its economic peer group as well as among Middle Eastern countries (it ranked seventh out of nine Middle Eastern countries in this category, ahead of Iraq and Qatar).

PATENTS: According to the same study, Saudi educational institutions filed 21 agricultural technology patents between 1996 and 2011, a low figure in comparison to the Kingdom’s economic peers (the highest ranked of which – Denmark – produced 1170 agricultural patents over the same period). However, here again Saudi activity is increasingly rapidly, with the number of patents filed growing by an average annual rate of 88% between 2006 and 2011, ranking the country third amongst its economic peers, behind Poland on 109% and Hong Kong on 83%. As is the case regarding the Kingdom’s agricultural scientific research papers, the impact of its agricultural patents appears to be fairly low by the standards of its economic peers, based on 0.33 citations per patent family (compared, for example, to 4.91 for Switzerland, the highest-ranked country with a similar GDP level). Some 48% of agricultural patents filed by Saudi research institutions were in the field of animal production, followed by 33% in agriculture systems and 24% in plant production.

KACST filed 14 of these patents (including four in the field of plant propagation, three relating to soil and two in relation to animal husbandry), KSU five (four in the field of animal husbandry and one in the field of animal breeding) and KAUST two (one each in irrigation systems and irrigation). The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, which is a major producer of fertilisers, also filed four agricultural technology patents during the period, and state oil firm Saudi Aramco filed one.

CONSERVATION EFFORTS: The need for the Kingdom to manage its scarce agricultural resources – and water supplies in particular – is amongst the main impetuses driving research and innovation in the sector. For example, KSU has a chair in precision agriculture research that focuses on increasing water efficiency in farming. Current projects include research into water productivity mapping and irrigation performance at a farm in Al Kharj in Riyadh Province, as well as precision fertigation. A recent KSU project looking at the use of variable rate irrigation on wheat and alfalfa, combined with prescriptive field mapping and the use of various monitoring techniques such as thermal satellite imaging, found that the use of such technologies led to a 30% reduction in the amount of water used for wheat production and a 20% savings for alfalfa, without reducing yields. Other technologies under investigation include evapotranspiration mapping and the use of saline water for hydroponic tomato production.

Local private sector companies are also contributing to efforts to reduce the use of water in farming. For example, in February 2014 local firm Babel Tower announced that it had created a new product capable of reducing agricultural water consumption for certain crops by between 15% and 20% through the direct measurement and calibration of the amount of water consumed by individual plants.

CALLS TO DO MORE: Despite rising levels of activity, some industry players argue that much more emphasis needs to be put on R&D and innovation as potential solutions to the region’s food security concerns. In February 2014 the CEO of agricultural research consortium CGIAR, Frank Rijsberman, gave a speech calling on regional governments to “massively increase investment in agricultural innovation”, arguing that efforts by GCC states to invest in agricultural production abroad have proved more problematic than expected and that Saudi Arabia’s plans for the large-scale import and storage of wheat and other basic food commodities could become prohibitively expensive, given current high food prices. As examples of potential alternatives to such strategies, Rijsberman pointed to research under way that could, for example, reduce the amount of water consumed in rice and wheat production by up to 50%, as well as initiatives to “re-green” desolate land and improve soil fertility through the planting of fertiliser trees and shrubs in crop fields.