Increase in food prices and fears of large scale disruptions to food supplies and food supply chains from the ongoing conflict in eastern Europe may have receded from the highs they reached early this year, but they nevertheless remain a serious cause of concern for countries around the world.
Latest report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released in early August noted that the benchmark for world food commodity prices declined significantly in July. The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI), averaged 140.9 points in July, down 8.6 percent from June, and way below the 158.9 points it soared to in March. Commenting on the decline, FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero said: “The decline in food commodity prices from very high levels is welcome, however, many uncertainties remain, including high fertilizer prices that can impact future production prospects and farmers’ livelihoods.”
For policymakers in Kuwait the recent high food price scenario and potential threat to its food supplies should serve as a stark reminder of the country’s continued vulnerability to extended periods of food supply disruptions and price hikes. As recent events highlighted, while oil and gas may fuel the global economy, it is food that fuels the human body; having abundant oil to export is no guarantee that it will ensure uninterrupted inflow of food supplies in future.
In the event of a major global calamity, such as one arising from another pandemic or a significant geopolitical or ecological and environmental upheaval that leads to extended periods of food supply disruptions and price increases, countries such as Kuwait that are overwhelmingly reliant on food imports, could be confronted with a serious threat to their growth and progress.
Government strategy to secure food security over the years has been focused on building larger food storage silos, boosting stocks of imported foods, and diversifying the countries from where it sources food. While this strategy could mitigate the threat of short-term supply disruptions, it cannot be maintained over extended periods of food shortages. Moreover, this is not a sustainable food security strategy over the long-term and in the face of critical global food shortages.
When confronting internal shortfalls in production or potential future shortages, countries that normally export food are liable to succumb to internal social and political pressures and ban export of essential food commodities. This was witnessed early this year when some countries imposed restrictions on their food exports, in response to the food supply disruptions brought on by the outbreak of conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Rather than continue building larger and more food silos, and stock up on imported foods, Kuwait needs to rethink its food security strategy. There is an urgent need to focus on decreasing the country’s food security vulnerabilities, by reducing reliance on imports and enhancing domestic production and utilization, through developing viable and cost-effective food production schemes, and policies designed to improve food security in the country.
Indications that the authorities are finally waking up to this realization appeared last week with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) submitting a detailed and comprehensive report on the country’s prevailing food security status and measures to enhance this, to the Council of Ministers. The Cabinet promptly responded to the report and set up a Supreme Committee to follow up on the MoCI study and its recommendations. These moves are certainly a welcome change to the previous attitude that oil wealth alone would ensure food supplies forever.
Among others, the MoCI report stressed the need to develop an integrated food and water security strategy based on developing a comprehensive system that enables sustainable food production. The study also recommended several measures that need to be implemented in order to improve the country’s food security status. These include prevailing practices of building more silos, diversifying the number and regions from where Kuwait imports foods, and bolstering the country’s supply chains by ensuring multiple supply channels.
The report also called for strengthening the national food basket by expanding regional and international agricultural investments, and purchasing agricultural land, livestock and fisheries in countries that are willing to rent or sell such land.
As well as, reconsidering the distribution of agricultural land and support for agricultural holdings, and aiming to achieve self-sufficiency in livestock breeding, poultry and fish farming as well as in fodder production.
Moreover, the report recommended increasing financial support for state food production companies so as to mitigate the repercussions of rising prices on global markets for basic ingredients in food production, with the government bearing the difference in prices through subsidizing these basic commodities to state companies. And, considering that water is the key component in any sustainable agricultural production, the study called for urgently Implementing a water resources management system, as well as exploring ways to diversify its water sources by leveraging advanced technologies and technological applications that enhance local water security.
In response to the MoCI report and in an effort to stay proactive in enhancing food and water security in the country, Kuwait’s Cabinet established the ‘Supreme National Committee for Strengthening Food and Water Security System’. The committee, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Oil and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, Dr. Mohammad Abdullatif Al-Fares, is tasked with developing an integrated strategy and implementing a roadmap of programs, projects and progress evaluation markers, as well as drafting the necessary laws and decisions to strengthen food and water security in the country.
The higher committee also includes representatives from other relevant authorities including the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Kuwait Investment Authority, and various ministries, as well as from the Public Authority for Agriculture Affairs and Fish Resources, the Public Authority for Food and Nutrition, and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. The committee also has an advisory body that includes experts and specialists from inside and outside the country to prepare and direct technical activities and recommendations regarding food and water security.
Several stakeholders in Kuwait’s food industry, including various union leaders, promptly welcomed and commended the cabinet’s decision to form the committee. Head of the Kuwaiti Farmers Union, Abdullah Al-Dammak expressed the union’s willingness to cooperate with the committee so as to support and enhance food security. He also hoped the committee would increase the union’s marketing outlets, especially in new residential areas, and take into consideration the union’s plan to support food security by ensuring priority for national produce over imported ones, increasing treated water pumping rates, and providing agricultural supplies to farmers at reduced prices.
For his part, the head of the Kuwaiti Federation of Fishermen, Dhaher Al-Suwayan, lauded the formation of the committee and hoped it would find solutions to the fishing sector’s persistent issues, while requesting an increase in support for the fishing activities so that fishermen could develop the sector and increase the production of local fish and shrimp to meet the needs of the local market.
Chiming in on cue, Chairman of the Federation of Fresh Dairy Producers Abdulhakeem Al-Ahmad said that Kuwaiti dairy farm owners are working side by side with different state entities in order to ensure food security. He noted that while Kuwait’s daily dairy consumption was over 1,200 tons, local dairy farms currently produced only around 200 tons. The union was willing and able to increase production with further support from the government for the 50 affiliated farms that have a total of 9,505 milking cows.
Reading this litany of commendations for the committee one could be forgiven for thinking that the formation of a supreme committee was all that was needed to push the country towards food self-sufficiency. And from the underlying theme that appears to run through these welcome remarks by the unions and federations, one would imagine that providing additional subsidies and support for local food producers would result in the country achieving food security.
Here it is worth noting that it is not from a lack of support or subsidies to local food producers that the country has not realized sufficient food production. There have been plenty of these handouts in the past with not much to show for these expenditures; the simple truth is farms in Kuwait are not productive. Most of the local ‘farmers’ are nothing more than hobbyists who consider their farmland as a place to build a chalet so as to relax and enjoy during weekends. Whatever production on the farmland is realized, and is needed to provide the fig leaf to maintain the farming license, can be attributed to poorly paid foreign laborers.
Recall that recently there were strident voices from the ‘farmers’ calling on the authorities to provide them with the administrative leeway to turn their farms into entertainment land. Though the authorities initially rejected this preposterous demand, political pressures apparently piled up and the result was that a government, which professed its commitment to improving the country’s food security had to acquiesce to the demand.
But there have been some ‘remarkable’ achievements from our farms, as the Director of the Agricultural Plots Department at the Public Authority for Agriculture and Fish Resources, Falah Al-Mutairi, pointed out a couple of months back. Local production of the handful of agricultural crops has reached 65 percent, up from the 40 percent in 2017; agriculture produce is now supplied across Kuwait through a network of 70 cooperative societies, and the number of greenhouses has gone up from 18,000 in 2016 to over 70,000 today.
What was left unsaid in all these statistics was the humongous amount of government subsidies and other handouts that went into this ‘remarkable’ local production. Over the decades these subsidies and freebies have resulted in only 120square kilometers of the nearly 1,540 square kilometers of agricultural land available, being planted with agricultural crops, and, out of this limited farmland only a handful of farms remain productive ventures.
A recent study to analyze the various opportunities for developing food security in the country highlighted some of the inherent weaknesses in this attempt at attaining self-sufficiency. The study, sponsored and supported by none other than the government, showed that among the weaknesses that stymie agricultural production in Kuwait are: abuse of agricultural land, low efficiency of water resource utilization in agricultural production, decline in agricultural labor force, and low agricultural productivity and global competence. Weaknesses were observed across the board in agriculture, in fisheries operations, and in local food production and marketing, including dairy, livestock and poultry production.
Farmland or entertainment venues, the fact of the matter is that Kuwait is among the least suitable countries in the world for agricultural production. An arid landscape, scant arable land, negligible annual rainfall, meager groundwater supplies, and poor productivity, all combine to make farming in Kuwait a formidable challenge. The country has gone down this path before; it has provided arable land, delivered expensive treated water to farms, subsidized farming and farmed products to make them competitive in the market. The end result is that agriculture now contributes 0.5 percent of the country’s GDP. A rethink on attempts to attain food self-sufficiency is sorely needed.