His Excellency Fahad Bin Abdulraman Al-Balghnim,
Minister of Agriculture of the KSA
Agriculture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would make most people raise their eyebrows at the thought of an arid land with scarce water growing vegetables. But Saudi Arabia does have underground aquifers and grows more than vegetables. “We produce about 65 percent of our fruit consumption; 85 percent of our vegetable production; 50 percent of our poultry consumption and 110 percent of our table eggs consumption so we export a little to the Gulf States. We also produce about a 120 percent of our fresh milk consumption… and let me tell you that Saudi Arabia produces the best dairy products in the world,” says His Excellency Fahad Bin Abdulraman Al-Balghnim, Minister of Agriculture of the Kingdom.
However, it is not the wish of the King nor the kingdom policy to exploit those little water resources for agriculture when there can be much better places in the globe to grow food.
“What is always in my consciousness is global food security. It is an issue that even our King is very much concerned about. If you are a person with social ethics you cannot enjoy your life if somebody next to you is suffering. We should all strike to make sure that nobody on this earth sleeps hungry any given day,” says the minister with clear signs of commitment.
“This is why King Abdullah said that we should give priority to water security”, he continues. “He does not want to reduce food production. We used to produce 2.6 million tons of weeds. But now the King says that gradually we should reduce our production and import it. We, as a country, should encourage agriculture production inviting the local business community that has acquired wealth and expertise to go and invest in agriculture production abroad in countries which have the potential of being agriculture producers with enough water supply and a good soil.”
Officially called King Abdullah Initiative for Investing in Agriculture Production Abroad, it has been organised under a committee headed by the minister of Trade and Industry and co-chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture with representatives from the ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs. “We encourage our private sector to go out and invest with the objective of increasing agriculture production universally”, explains the minister. “International organisations such as Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is calling for an increase of global agriculture production. It estimates that to cover our needs, by 2050 we should increase our agriculture production by 70 percent. You cannot do that by dreaming, you have to do that by real work. We in Saudi Arabia feel that we are dedicated to invest more and more in agriculture production and we feel that many other governments agree and work towards that same global goal. We will see a jump in agricultural production globally. There is no shortage of the needed natural resources to reach that goal. What we need to do is to have the political will and the financial commitment to do it. That is all.”
Water and food security
In Saudi Arabia access to water for agricultural needs is absolutely free so the government has to be very creative to make a shift in the farmers practices. One of the main objectives is to convert farmers from flood irrigation to drip irrigation in order to save as much water as they can with the highest levels of productivity.
“From our experience in agriculture we have come to a very strong conviction that we should have a sustainable agriculture otherwise it is not beneficial to the country or the people to build a sector that will collapse in 20 or 30 years. For that reason the government, and especially King Abdullah, has taken very courageous decisions to give water security an absolute priority because it is fundamental for the life of the Saudi society. After water security we can look at food security and this is why in our ministry we are focused and concerned in producing as much as we can out of what we have. Internationally they say you have to conserve water in agriculture, you have to have more crops per drop. In Saudi Arabia we say that we want to do more crops per less drops,” explains Al-Balghnim.
However, local production is necessary to help offset the increasing prices of food coming from foreign countries into the kingdom, especially since the country’s entrance in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005. Today around 80 percent of the food consumed in the country is imported. Agriculture represents only 4 percent of the GDP and employs around 10 percent of the workforce, most of it unskilled foreign labour.
“We have been an open economy since our creation; strengthen with the entrance of Saudi Arabia to the WTO. It is important to us to have our country opened to increase our competitiveness. If you control your imports, you will never develop a good industry,” says the Minister.
And the industry is indeed developing. Saudi Arabia is producing some of the finest milk products of the world with the partnership of one of the most recognise worldwide dairy products name, DANONE. “An international company like Danone would not come here unless it was a really good opportunity for investment. It is a very big market,” nodes Al-Balghanin.
But Saudi Arabia is also a country with 23 million dates palm trees -almost one per habitant- that produce some of the most exquisite and varied dates. Most recently, in Al Jouf, North of the country, olive plantations are starting to build a new olive oil based industry.
Several studies are under way to determine the recharge amount of water that goes into the underground aquifers. Once finished, the country should be able to know exactly how much water they can pump from each aquifer to sustain their agriculture.
“However,” -adds the minister- “as the prophet said: “Doomsday will not come before the Arabian Peninsula is back into rivers and greeneries”.