As Oman works towards a self-sustaining economy, radical changes are being made in the fields of food security and production of food locally. Y’s Alvin Thomas investigates The Sultanate’s food security plan that’s expected to uplift its food industry one harvest at a time.
The primary source of human sustenance, food forms the basis of everything – from life and well-being to global economies.
And while some take liberty in throwing leftover food from delicious meals into bins daily, there are millions of people – 9.1 million as per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – around the globe that die, excruciatingly, every year from hunger.
It’s a grim fact that highlights a vital point: there’s food everywhere, but not enough for everyone to eat.
The fundamental right of every living being – food and water – still scrabbles to find purchase in developing societies across different parts of the world; from countries in Africa to war-torn states in the Middle East.
Yet, here in the Sultanate we reap the rewards of a unified food network that’s sustained by global imports and, on growing levels, agriculture and in-house production aided by government and private sectors.
But even as the nation grows in population and develops into a powerhouse in the GCC, many experts are now coming forward to ask the question: how would Oman deal with a worldwide food shortage crisis if one was to unfold in the coming decade?
To learn more about the topic, we sit down with Sayed Rahman, 26, a postgraduate in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security from the UK, who has now taken over his family business in the field of retail foodstuffs in Barka.
He says: “Oman is one of the safest countries in the Middle East when it comes to food security and equality, mostly due to factors such as its access to trade routes, the nation’s diplomatic stance in the region, abundant aflaj systems, a deep-rooted agricultural sector, and an ever-developing Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
“That, however, doesn’t mean we’re immune from acute food shortage – just like no other country in the world is ever safe from it.
“Every country has its own set of challenges in the matter of food security – and it can depend on things such as the size of the nation, its overall produce, import values, taxes, and reserve stockpile that’s kept for scenarios such as trade embargoes and famine.
Sayed says he’s positive about Oman making decisions that’ll anchor food security in the coming years. He tells us: “I keep an eye on news relating to the agriculture and food industries – and food security is given the same importance in the Sultanate as renewable energy, pollution, and topics such global warming.”
Yet, defining food security goes beyond just having access to food. As per the World Food Summit, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active, healthy life.
Perhaps this is what led to the formation of Oman’s new flagship dairy company: Mazoon Dairy. Touted as the largest integrated dairy project in the Sultanate, the newly opened company came about under the aegis of the National Food Security Initiative of Oman.
Ahmed al Ghafri, the Chief Strategic Officer of Mazoon Dairy, shares his thoughts with us, saying: “From the first day Mazoon Dairy was created and announced, the whole nation was excited about the project.
“Everyone was happy that the food security programme was started and that Mazoon Dairy was the first project. That national momentum, which was following us through all steps during the project and construction phases, we are proud of. That raised the bar and the expectations and put us under pressure in a positive manner.
“For us, we’re all a part of this society. And we earn trust by providing everyone – both expats and Omanis – with the highest quality and fresh products.”
All of this falls in-line with the company’s objectives to improve the nation’s self-sufficiency in dairy production and improve the per capita consumption of milk, while focusing on the well-being of children, generating jobs, and stimulating an environment for food manufacturing with high quality systems.
And that’s not all. To complement existing efforts, the Oman Food Investment Holding Company (OFIC), is strategising a three-pronged approach by drawing up plans for an integrated fruit and vegetable marketing company, an improved logistics programme, and a food techno park – all of which are aimed at reducing the nation’s reliance on imports of foodstuff.
In an interview with local daily Times of Oman, Saleh al Shanfari, the Chief Executive Officer of OFIC was quoted as saying: “The overall goal is to make Oman more competitive and to make farmers capable of producing the right food, and to make consumers capable of accessing the right quality, quantity, and prices of certain types of food.”
He also added how the establishment of an integrated fruits and vegetables marketing company could help market locally grown imported fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, the food techno park is a bold move to bring food- and agro-sector service providers – including SMEs and large-scale producers – under one roof to share ideas, nurture them, and incubate it before unveiling it to international markets.
The state-owned OFIC is also responsible for companies such as the Oman Flour Mills, Oman National Livestock Development, Oman Fisheries, and Al Murooj Dairies.
In fact, projects that OFIC handles and promotes (including Mazoon Dairy) are singlehandedly expected to spike food security in sectors pertaining to dairy products, red meat, poultry, and eggs. It’s forecasted that Mazoon Dairy and Al Murooj Dairy will, together, add more than 96,000 tonnes of production by 2020, raising dairy self-sufficiency in Oman by 67 per cent – which is up from 31 per cent in 2015.
Charting trends from the last decade shows an increase in food production, as per a report published by the Oxford Business Group, earlier this year. For instance, agricultural produce has risen from 1.2 million tonnes in 2008, to 2.6 million tonnes in 2017. Vegetable crops accounted for 814,570 tonnes of produce and was followed by fruit crops (450,819 tonnes), field crops such as wheat and barley (18,943 tonnes), and animal fodder (1.3 million tonnes).
“This growth is amazing,” says Narges Mohammed Mirza, the founder of the Pairidaeza Organic Farm in Oman. “This country continues to amaze us. Just a few years ago, we had people thinking that the dry, arid sands of Oman couldn’t sustain crops – but technology and hard work has changed the way we look at farming.
“We’ve been proving the skeptics wrong,” she proudly adds.
The farmers in her 11-acre organic farm are able to grow everything from cucumbers, kale, beetroot, dates, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes, lettuce, capsicums, lemons, zucchini, bananas, spinach, rosemary, mangoes, and 60 other types of fruit and vegetables.
It’s an astonishing feat by itself, as the United Nations reports that Oman, with its limited average annual rainfall and topography, has a mere seven per cent arable land for agriculture.
However, as Narges rightly points out, strong research and development, and the increased use of technology is quickly changing the face of agriculture in Oman.
Oman’s heavy investments on agricultural research in recent years have been acknowledged internationally. In 2018, it received a maximum score (of 100) in the public expenditure for R&D on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security 2018.
The nation’s efforts aren’t in vain, either. At the time of publishing, Oman has been ranked 29th in the world for its food security score in the Food Security Index list with an overall score of 74.4 – which is two and three places ahead of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively.
Sayed, who is confident of a strong future for Oman, says: “The nation’s greatest success is that it’s foraging into newer territories to reduce its reliance on imports from other countries.
“And while it’s true that a portion of high-value crops grown here are also sold here, Oman must now focus on yielding as much as it can by reducing wastage and implementing sustainable and refined logistical systems.
“Get that right and we could be looking at reducing our reliance on imports and, more importantly, increasing our self-sufficiency to a point where we could then begin exporting to other countries to give our GDP a boost.”