Saudi 7-point plan for agriculture

An interesting article in Arab News, explains some facets of Saudi Arabia’s current agricultural policy.

The state-owned Agricultural Development Fund has launched a seven-point initiative that includes the establishment of an agricultural information center, water conservation in irrigation, the outsourcing of wheat and fodder production, marketing infrastructure for vegetables, fruits and  fish, cooperative insurance for livestock sector, especially poultry and a cattle breeding company.

Minister of Agriculture Balghunaim complains that expansion of vegetables and poultry production has lagged behind. While self-sufficiency in eggs has been achieved, the ratio for poultry is only 42 percent for vegetables 85 percent. The Syrian civil war has led to supply disruptions from a traditional supplier, but they can be sourced elsewhere, for example from Morocco in the case of tomatoes as the minister explained.

Alfalfa, Wheat and Water in Saudi Arabia

Courtesy of Robin Willoughby  of Chatham House in London I have come across this interesting study about the water consumption of different crops in Saudi Arabia.

It was conducted by researchers of King Saud University on a research farm of King Abdul-Aziz University in Hoda Al-Sham in the Makkah area.

Like this earlier article in Al-Eqtisadiyah that is referencing a study of King Saud University it finds that alfalfa cultivation needs about four times more water on any given piece of land than wheat.

The wheat phase-out of the government has thus led to increased water consumption if farmers switched to alfalfa. In off-the cuff estimates some farmers put the  water consumption of alfalfa even at five times higher and above in the hot summer months as I write in Oil for Food on pp. 87-88.

The increased water consumption is mainly due to all year round cultivation of alfalfa (which is essentially not uprooted, but only cut to let it grow again), while wheat is only cultivated 4 months in the winter. In addition, alfalfa plants also need about 20% more water than wheat:

The Evapotranspiration (ET) figures for wheat on p. 199 of the study and for alfalfa on p. 201 show this clearly:

Wheat: Period planted: 120 days, average ET per day: 3.87 mm, total ET over the year: 498,2 mm
Alfalfa: Period planted: 363 days, average ET per day 4.94mm, total ET over the year: 1922, 50 mm

Thus the increased water consumption of alfalfa according to this study is mainly due to all year long cultivation, but also due to an ET that is 20% higher than wheat. If Saudi Arabia really wants to save water, it will need to address alfalfa production and the continuous expansion of its dairy industry that requires it as feedstock.

Saudi Initiatives for more Water Efficiency

Saudi Arabia has seen a number of new initiatives that aim to use  water more efficiently.

Degremont, the water-treatment unit of Suez Environnement (SEV) has won a $52 million contract. It will desalinate brackish groundwater to produce drinking water for 3,000 households in the Riyadh area that have been hitherto supplied by water trucks.

As water tables sink and one has to drill deeper and deeper into aquifers, desalination is not only needed for sea water but also for increasingly brackish groundwater. As far as such water is used for agriculture there is a direct trade-off between water security and the demands of subsidized food production.

In another development, the Precision Agriculture Research Chair (PARC) of King Saud University (KSU) is implementing a  research project funded by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) under the National Plan for Science and Technology (NPST). The goal is to use water, fertilizer and pesticides more efficiently with the help of drip irrigation and precision farming.

On two pilot farms in Haradh and Al-Kharj water savings for wheat amount to 30 percent and for alfalfa to 20 percent. While this is laudable it has to be kept in mind that even then water consumption of the two crops is prodigious, particularly for alfalfa which can be planted year round and needs about five times more water than wheat.

Water efficiency gains are not an alternative to reduce these crops and focus on more value added crops like vegetables that can be grown in green houses. This is the focus of a third project of PARC on the “Use of saline water for tomato production in hydroponic green houses”.

Saudi Water Study Delays Agro Reform

“The country’s national agricultural strategy will be approved once a water studies report has been completed, according to Samir Qabbani, a member of the agricultural committee at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an agricultural consultant.
The strategy was submitted to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for his approval. It is currently being studied by the Supreme Economic Council, according to a report published in a local newspaper on Friday.”

Meanwhile, the partial wheat phase-out has not decreased water consumption as farmers switch from wheat to even more water consuming alfalfa which is needed for the Kingdom’s expanding dairy industry.…..

Saudi milk production rising amid water concerns

Saudi Arabia’s dairy industry is bucking the trend of agricultural downsizing: Wheat production is declining and will be phased-out by 2016 (if everything is going according to plans and rearguard fights of ago-lobbies notwithstanding).

Milk production however is rising and will grow 27.2 percent to 2.4mn tons by 2016/17.

A motion by the Saudi Majlis al-Shoura some time ago was opposed by the Ministry of Agriculture which tends to represent the water guzzling agro-industry, which is often in royal hands like the leading dairy producer Almarai.

The argument was that dairy production is not water intensive because it uses imported feedstock like barley. This of course conveniently overlooked the water consumption for green fodder (mainly alfalfa) and for raising the cattle itself (drinking water, cleaning the stables etc.).

Interests are vested and the phasing-out of wheat production will not mean a reduction of water consumption if dairy production and associated green fodder production keeps rising.

Al Dahra in Serbia: Shift from LDCs to developed markets

UAE based Al Dahra has announced an agro-investment on 20, 000ha in Serbia for $380 million where it plans to grow grains and alfalfa as fodder. It already has a similar project for alfalfa in Pakistan.

As reason for the shift towards a more developed market it cited lacking infrastructure in developing countries as a major impediment for investments.

This trend is ongoing: If the Gulf countries actually put money on the table and go beyond mere project announcement it has been rather in developed markets like Australia or Argentina.

UAE: Rhodes Grass Phase-Out Lags Behind

The UAE’s plan to phase-out water intensive production of Rhodes grass lags behind. Rhodes grass dominates field crops with 94 percent. Alfalfa, which is the dominant green fodder in Saudi Arabia contributes another 4 percent.

In Saudi Arabia alfalfa production has actually increased after farmers started to plant it as a substitute for the phase out of subsidized wheat production since 2008.

Without increased water tariffs or rationing a reduction in green fodder production is not be had.