Saudis plan to grow crops overseas


London : Saudi Arabia has unveiled plans to develop large-scale overseas agricultural projects to secure food supplies, revealing that Riyadh is in discussions with the Ukraine, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey and Egypt, it was reported here.

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Abdullah Al-Obaid, the Deputy Agriculture Minister, told the Financial Times (FT) newspaper here Friday the government was planning to set up projects of at least 100,000 hectares in several countries to grow crops such as wheat, corn, rice, soya beans and alfalfa, a feed for livestock.

The move, which is also aimed at building up strategic reserves, comes as food prices have doubled over the past two years and a series of trade restrictions by exporting countries have limited the Kingdom’s ability to secure supplies.

The huge rises in food prices, particularly wheat and rice, have caused a number of Arab countries to look to develop schemes in other nations.

Food costs have also been a significant contributor to the double-digit inflation that is causing mounting concern in the Middle East, the main business daily in Europe said.

Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy and the most populous state in the Gulf, buys most of its food products.

It is the world’s largest importer of barley and one of the five largest importers of rice, the FT added.

The main exception is wheat, of which it produces about 2.5 million tonnes per year, the result of a heavily subsided project started in the 1970s, which has cost the government billions of dollars.

However, the Kingdom decided earlier this year to phase out wheat by 2016 to protect its finite water resources, realising the project was unsustainable.

Officials are also concerned about farmers growing alfalfa, which consumes a huge amount of water, to feed dairy cattle, the FT said.

Saudi Arabia will be set to become one of the world’s top wheat importers when it phases out domestic production of the grain.

Al-Obaid said the plan to set up new agricultural projects was driven by the rise in food prices, the need to secure future food sources and the desire to offer opportunities to the Saudi private sector.

He told the FT officials had contacted many countries which had reacted positively, “so we are going to select.”