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By Raynald C Rivera
Strawberries grown in the desert. Impossible? Not in Qatar, where farms like Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex are using new technology to grow fruits and vegetables and reduce the country’s dependence on food imports.
There is increasing awareness about food security around the world, especially in countries like Qatar, which imports 90 percent of its food.The global food crisis of 2007-08 led the country to launch the Qatar National Food Security Programme, under which the Heir Apparent H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad AI Thani formed a task force with members from all sectors of the economy to set a responsible and coordinated course for increased resiliency for Qatar.
Even before that some private companies had ventured to grow vegetables and fruits locally to decrease the dependence on imports and offer consumers a better alternative.
Currently there are more than 1,200 farms in the country, but only a small number of them commercially produce fruits and vegetables. SAIC, one of the largest agricultural farms in the country, is the main local supplier of fresh vegetables to hypermarkets here.
Located 20km from Doha in Umm Salal Ali, the 40-hectare farm started cultivating vegetables in 2001 and flower production the following year. While it has open fields for fruit-bearing trees and vegetables, the farm grows most of its fruits, vegetables, seasonal flowers and ornamental plants in greenhouses.
In recent years, the company has made efforts to modernise its operations, adopting the latest technologies to conserve water, reduce use of pesticides and maximise output.
Hydroponics, a modern method of cultivation in which plants are grown without soil, using only a mineral nutrient solution in water, is used in the greenhouses. This system of farming is said to reduce water use by up to 60 percent, something significant in arid Qatar.
It has desalination plants to produce fresh water suitable for agriculture and treatment plants for water reuse.
There is also a state-of-the-art germination and growing room which provides a controlled environment where seeds germinate properly regardless of fluctuating weather conditions.
Capsicum, strawberries, herbs, tomatoes and flowers are some of the produce grown in the greenhouses, while broccoli, cabbage, lolla rossa, cauliflower, zucchini, corn, citrus and mango are grown in the open fields.
Compared to imported vegetables and fruits, the farm’s produce is competitively priced in the market, and it is fresh and of high quality. A Saudi ban on export of some vegetables has spurred demand for the farm’s produce.
As for flowers, the farm produces six million annually, with 45 varieties grown during winter and 15 in summer. The farm is a riot of colours as rows of celosias, zinnias, dahlias and petunias are cultivated in the greenhouses in huge numbers. Most of the flowers grown in the farm can be seen all over the city as the company is one of the suppliers to the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning.
The farm’s production is not enough to meet the demands of hypermarkets and stores in the country, so additional greenhouses are being built and more advanced facilities added to increase yield.
A computerised greenhouse control room equipped with a security camera and connected to the Internet has just been built. Among the features of the control room are pumps that supply the exact amount of water and nutrients needed to the greenhouses.
The facility, through its research and development department, also continuously studies techniques to further increase production and grow more varieties of vegetables for the market.
With the population of Qatar increasing as employers bring in more workers for projects connected to the 2022 football World Cup, demand for food is expected to grow. There is, therefore, urgent need for local farms to produce more to reduce the country’s dependence on imported vegetables and fruits.