The blockade of imports into Qatar by its Gulf neighbours has ramped up political tensions in the region, and again exposed the fragility of food supply chains.
The tensions with neighbouring members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and consequent blockades of ports and airspace, has led to urgent new deals with Iran and Turkey and the potential for imminent shortages, food inflation and popular unrest. Qatar is now being forced to invest heavily into its New Port Project (NPP), with a Steering Committee and AlJaber Engineering (JEC) signing a contract for food security facilities and warehouses at a cost of QAR1.6 billion (£342million).
So the wealthiest nation on the planet (with a per capita income of £101,000 compared with around £32,400 in the UK) is having to face up to an experience of what poverty might feel like, at least until the vast infrastructural changes come into effect, because Qatar has a glaring weakness in its reliance on imported food supplies (around 90 per cent or more).
Qatar is an important example to the West of a nation grown complacent on the basis of its wealth, appearing to not give enough attention to securing resilience within its food supply chains, alongside a major food waste problem and a culture of luxury and extravagance. The blockades have exposed a lack of domestic capability, a legacy of local industry not able to compete with cheaper imports, high production costs associated with the local climate and ecology, immature supply chains, a lack of knowledge and expertise – and a general preference for higher quality imports in a status conscious market.
It’s not a temporary and localised blip, but the kind of wake-up call needed by the developed world. The lessons of Qatar in the coming years could well provide models for the West and other wealthy nations. Our own sophisticated nation with its cool climate and deep-rooted agricultural traditions is far from being beyond these kinds of worries. More than 50 per cent of our food and animal feed is imported. The National Farmers’ Union claimed in 2015 that the UK would only be capable of feeding 53 per cent of its population by the mid-2040s [PDF, 387KB]. Most of our imports also rely on EU ports, which in a Brexit future would be reliant on re-negotiated deals and arrangements that are still far from clear.
In Qatar the crisis is ensuring new attitudes and change. All nations need a strong core of domestic food production capable of competing with cheap, sometimes loss leader imports. Qatar needs to develop a generation of ‘agro-preneurs’, and that means backing them with subsidies, business-friendly processes for start-ups and the necessary capital for facilities. Fledgling enterprises will need an ecosystem of knowledge and expertise in agriculture to demonstrate how they can become established in local markets and their wares be more attractive than imported goods – not protectionism but local resilience. While the soil or sand is far from ideal, there are innovative, technological solutions such as hydroponics that challenge the acceptance that you can’t grow food in certain regions. The question is more about finding suitable financial models to make it meaningful to investors (whether from governments or business).
Most importantly, the Qatar government is funding activity to change famously profligate consumer attitudes towards food and waste through the Qatar National Research Fund. The Safeguarding Food and Environment in Qatar research project (SAFE-Q) has focused on consumer behaviour and ways in which the population can be alerted to the bigger picture of the food life cycle and range of types of waste. While individual products may look low-cost on the shelves, all foods involve high costs in terms of the resources involved in growing, rearing, transporting, and processing raw materials.
Qatar is now acutely aware that smart marketing and more widespread education is needed to change the ‘normal behaviours’ of its consumers: the rejection of ‘non-perfect’ foods, excess food just seen as rubbish, the preference for luxury global brands as a definition of status. In particular, Qataris will need to become accepting of the – at least initially – lower standards of locally-produced foods.
And here’s the crux of the lessons for the rest of the world: consumers can’t keep on living in what is essentially only a dream of low prices and unlimited supplies of perfect products. Food needs to be understood in terms of whole life cycles of resources (increasingly called a circular economy) and their long, and increasingly fragile, chains of participants. We need to take every opportunity to highlight and learn from this fragility wherever it is exposed and then to challenge conventional thinking – our lives might well depend on it.
By Professor Zahir Irani and Professor Amir Sharif