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Gulf crisis fertilises Qatar veg industry

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Doha (AFP)

Surrounded by what was once arid Qatari desert, Nezar al-Atawneh picked up a giant spaghetti pumpkin and brandished it trying to guess its weight.

"This one must be at least eight kilos," or nine pounds, he exclaimed proudly.

Atawneh, operations manager at the Qatarat Agricultural Development Company (QADCO), played the guessing game in the middle of a field full of mature squash ready to be harvested in Al-Daayen, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Doha.

The fields are a novelty in a country where the landscape is mostly sand dunes, where water is scarce and summer temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

But since June 2017, Qatar has prioritised local food production in response to an economic embargo imposed by its neighbours which had been Doha's leading source of imports.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cut direct flights, sea links and cross-border trade with the gas-rich emirate of 2.7 million people over alleged support for terrorism and Iran, which Qatar categorically denies.

"Since the blockade, the work has been 24 hours -- day in, day out. We reclaimed vast tracts of land, we increased production," said QADCO general manager Thawad Mohammed al-Kuwari.

- 'Water is a big issue' -

In the days after the embargo came into force, supermarket shelves were emptied and people feared food shortages if import routes were blocked.

Qatar responded quickly and deployed its large national airline Qatar Airways to fly in food from friendly countries including Turkey, Iran and Morocco.

But the cost of air freight highlighted the importance of growing food locally.

Production at QADCO, owned by former prime minister Abdulla bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has tripled since the beginning of the crisis.

From a daily base of seven to nine tonnes of vegetables, Kuwari said "we now reach 25-30 tonnes" during the winter months -- the high season -- despite Qatar's challenging climate.

"Qatar has very harsh conditions, high temperature, high humidity. To overcome these challenges is not easy, so you must have special techniques and special agricultural practices," explained Atawneh as he walked between rows of ripe tomato plants.

Creating a plot of arable land takes about a year of preparation.

First the rock layer must be broken, the sand has to be dug into, and then clay collected before being mixed with organic residue to make soil fertile enough to grow crops.

Before a single seed could be sewn, kilometres (miles) of black piping had to be installed for irrigation.

"Water is a big issue and it has high salinity" and requires treatment, said Atawneh, an engineer.

- 'The blockade helped us' -

Qatar relies mostly on desalination besides wells and underground reserves for its water needs.

When not inspecting crops on the 650-hectare (1,600-acre) project, Atawneh experiments with new seeds, growing techniques and water-saving measures.

He also prides himself on cultivating "clean vegetables" using as few chemical agents as possible -- making them "semi-organic", he said as he picked a cucumber in an air-conditioned greenhouse.

Farmers hoping to grow their businesses have had to invest heavily, with QADCO alone investing 20 million Qatari riyals ($5.5 million) to expand operations in support of the country's self-sufficiency drive.

The company hopes to expand its number of greenhouses and arable fields by roughly 50 percent by the beginning of 2020.

Kuwari admits the cost of agriculture "is very high here".

"No one likes to lose money," he said adding that his venture is profitable.

Almost a quarter of vegetables sold on the domestic market are now locally produced, according to the agriculture ministry, compared to just 12 percent in 2016.

Qatar hopes to be 70 percent self-sufficient by 2023 and the government has set up a food security department to meet that goal.

Progress has been striking and the country has built dairy and poultry industries from scratch, going from importing 98 percent of its needs to looking at entering the export market.

QADCO has looked into exporting fruit and vegetables to potential clients in Ukraine and Russia but, for now, officials will not allow it.

Ministers are prioritising the needs of local consumers and the push for self-sufficiency -- a novel concept Qatar was forced to adopt at significant cost.

"The blockade helped us so much," said Kuwari.

"It helped our country and our leaders to focus on their own people and see what they can do."

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