In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, nature-inclusive or regenerative agriculture is considered a sustainable way to increase food security. In its reform agenda named Vision2030, the country has formulated important plans on how to increase the use of technology, promote organic farming, and increase the use of water-saving methods. Food security is a priority in all the Gulf countries, and sustainable agriculture has gained enormous attention. Yet, it is still in its early stages of development and needs Dutch expertise in the fields of horticulture, poultry, aquaculture, and agri-logistics.
Saudi Arabia has been facing a growing demand for food due to its increasing population. The Kingdom has been relying heavily on food imports but is now intensively increasing its self-sufficiency levels in specific food sectors in which that is feasible, trying to control the negative impact on its environment and not putting too much pressure on its already scarce natural resources. Nature-inclusive agriculture can potentially reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on imports and promote sustainable agriculture. Through practices such as crop rotation or the use of natural fertilizers, soil health, and biodiversity can be restored without the use of synthetic inputs.
Almarai focuses on sustainability at home and abroad
Methods of nature-inclusive agriculture have already been introduced in Saudi Arabia’s dairy sector. An example is Almarai Co., the largest dairy company in the Gulf Region. Almarai has already implemented a sustainability campaign throughout its local production facilities (see brochure Almarai Protecting the Planet). Also, it has started using organic fertilizers by integrating livestock and crop production into its production chain. Organic fertilizer is now being sourced from its poultry litter charring operations in Hail.
In addition to their national operations, Almarai owns massive amounts of arable lands in other countries. In the USA and Argentina, for example, Almarai is just as committed to applying regenerative farming methods such as soil restoration and water-saving methods as they are in Saudi Arabia. These methods have not only helped Almarai reduce its environmental footprint but have also improved the quality of its products.
Limited freshwater resources and need of skilled supervision
Unfortunately, nature-inclusive agriculture in Saudi Arabia comes with certain challenges. Its climate is extremely arid, while many nature-inclusive methods require significant amounts of water. As a result, agroforestry is only applied on a smaller scale, for example, for growing dates, olives, and citrus alongside trees in agricultural areas such as in Al-Jouf, Al-Ahsa, Tabuk, and Al-Baha.
Although local farmers are interested in methods to improve soil health and diversification of their crops, it is counterproductive to apply methods like agroforestry on a large scale. Freshwater resources simply are too limited. In addition, nature-inclusive agriculture requires technical knowledge and constant supervision, as it opposes more traditional and well-known farming practices. So far, it has been challenging to find sufficient skilled labor to execute this work.
Public sector pushes sustainable farming methods
It is not just private companies like Almarai that are promoting regenerative farming practices. The Saudi Arabian government is trying to stimulate sustainable farming practices as well. The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, and the Agricultural Development Fund (ADF) provide attractive loans and incentives to farmers who visibly invest in high-tech methods and technologies. Nature-inclusive farming methods often require big upfront investments. ADF offers subsidies to produce organic fertilizers and other organic inputs. In a meeting between the management of ADF and the LAN agri-food team for the Gulf Region (in early May, it was announced that regulations for loans will change within the coming months, meaning that agricultural financing will no longer be only limited to local entities.
The Saudi Arabia Organic Farming Association (SAOFA) is also stimulating organic farming and sustainable farming practices by providing training and certification to farmers. By implementing practices restoring the natural ecosystem, farmers can improve the quality of their products while promoting biodiversity and reducing their environmental footprint. With the support of the government and other stakeholders, nature-inclusive agriculture can help create a more sustainable and resilient food system in Saudi Arabia.
National campaigns such as Green Riyadh (the planting of 7,5 million trees in Riyadh Region by 2030) and the Saudi Green Initiative (planting of 10 billion trees on a national level by 2030) have been implemented to combat afforestation, improve soil health, and increase vegetation.
Nature-inclusive agriculture in the broader Gulf Region
Food security is a priority in all Gulf countries, especially after the COVID-pandemic. As a result, sustainable agriculture gained enormous attention. Yet, nature-inclusive agriculture is still in its early stages of development for the region as a whole.
On a national level, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seems to be the most advanced when it comes to nature-inclusive agriculture policies and practices. The UAE government has launched several initiatives to promote sustainable agriculture and nature-inclusive farming practices. Comparable to Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, for example, has launched the National Biosecurity Committee in 2022, which created a strategy with measures to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and promote natural inputs.
Also, the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Center has established a program to promote sustainable practices among local farmers. The country also has established research centers to improve agricultural practices to reduce its negative effect on climate, such as the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, which focuses on challenges related to water scarcity and salinity.
Emirates Bio Farm is a large organic farm located in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates that specializes in producing certified organic vegetables, fruits, and eggs using sustainable farming practices. It aims to provide customers with the freshest organic products within 24 hours of being harvested. The farm functions as an experience center for other farmers as well as consumers to get acquainted with organic farming in an arid climate. The integration of a poultry farm, greenhouses, and open-field production (to make minimal use of natural resources in the desert) makes this farm a unique project.
Chances for the Netherlands
The contribution of the Netherlands to the Saudi agri-food sector goes way back, starting at the beginning of the so-called Agricultural Revolution in Saudi Arabia half a century ago. Currently, the Netherlands is involved in a major project directly under the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture. This project aims to innovate and improve the food production sector as a whole.
The Saudi Arabian Agricultural Development Fund is opening up to non-local parties, which offers great opportunities for Dutch companies with sustainable and innovative solutions. During the meeting ADF specifically mentioned the need for Dutch expertise in the fields of horticulture, poultry, aquaculture, and agri-logistics.