Saudi Arabia has few policy options to confront its food and water security, and when we talk about sustainable systems, those options get reduced even further. However, it’s apparent that change is necessary, as current consumption patterns and pricing patterns are a one way ticket off a fiscal cliff. Again, the problem is not that Saudi Arabia is going to run out of oil (of which it has at least 100 years worth according to some petroleum engineering friends of mine). Rather the danger is that all the oil produced will be consumed domestically, leaving the country looking around for alternative exports while at the same time desalinating more of its water for more people, and importing more food for a higher population.
In a typical food security analysis, Very Smart People look at the economy and ask, “will Country K be able to import the food it cannot produce domestically?” In other words, is the economy such that KSA can pay for its food needs? Currently the answer is a resounding yes, because that’s what is happening; 60% of all food is imported.
So in the typical analysis, Saudi Arabia’s food security is fine. But there have been previous incidents that caused worry. In 2007 India imposed an export ban on non-basmati rice due to a domestic shortage, which led to a shortage in KSA. Despite Saudi Arabia’s wealth, it could not obtain all the rice it wanted, and imports fell by thousands of tons. Consequently, domestic prices were inflated, and millions of poor Saudis–of whom there are an estimated 2-4 million— experienced significant hunger.
For its food security, KSA has embarked on a program encouraging the private sector to invest in lands abroad where food can be produced and sold back to the country. The idea is that countries with land but no capital will cooperate with Saudi businessmen to develop previously undeveloped agricultural areas. Among the countries under consideration are Ethiopia, Sudan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mozambique and Ukraine.
Whether you call this a land grab, neo-colonialism, or investment in developing a better food supply, it still holds that if there is a famine in Ethiopia, it’s not going to export food to Saudi Arabia. There is nothing to stop a foreign country from nationalizing its domestic product when circumstances dictate, which would leave countries like Saudi Arabia in the same pickle as before. Thus this approach comes with significant risk, especially since it was already attempted in the late 1970s with Sudan. At that time it failed, as is detailed in Eckart Woertz’s Oil For Food (which also describes the challenges of the current situation).
Fawaz al Alamy, who negotiated Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and is now a director of a major food and food-processing company, told Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Policy Council, “In these foreign investments, in Sudan or Ethiopia or Ukraine, who is going to secure the investment against political risk or flood or whatever? I would love to see these projects succeed, but I don’t believe it. Profit margins are already small in the food business. I’d rather have agreements with credible countries like New Zealand and Canada — they produce without help from us; we buy, we have stable arrangements with no investment risk.”
While that may seem a more secure policy, it ignores a basic fact about modern agriculture: it is inherently unsustainable. Saudi Arabia’s domestic agriculture is at the point of ceasing because it is out of water, and has almost no soil to start with. However, all modern agricultures deplete soil and are draining aquifers. There is not a single agriculture on the planet growing the staples people eat–rice, wheat, corn, soy, oats, barley–that is sustainable in terms of soil or water. In the United States most agriculture in the plains region depend on water from the huge Ogalalla aquifer, the greatest source of fresh water on the planet. Due to management issues, the Ogalalla is being drawn down at a rate of at least 40 million acre feet per year, and is reportedly already inaccesible in areas of northern Texas. The more western states have drained the Colorado River dry. It is the same story the world over.
This is the double whammy of Saudi Arabia’s food security–as it looks outside for imports, agricultures that are now considered reliable will begin to fail, and will increasingly do so unless the way we grow food changes dramatically. The modus operandi of human societies to this point has been to turn forests into fields, monocrop those fields, and over decades or centuries, turn those fields into desert. The deforestation causes loss of water and precipitation, and the monocropped agricultures mine topsoil until it erodes away and nothing is left but dead dirt and sand. This is being observed in real time in Brazil, where clearing forest to grow soy & sugarcane has resulted in the worst drought in decades.
The speed of that process from forest to desert for the sake of unsustainable agricultures is increasing as populations grow and as technology advances. On a pragmatic level that means agricultures will become more and more volatile, and food production will be unreliable. Thus Saudi Arabia’s current plight is actually everyone’s predicament in the long run, when it comes to food security: Desertification, loss of productivity, and the irretrievable loss of our water sources is our future unless we revolutionize how we produce food.
There is a sustainable solution for Saudi Arabia, as well as for the rest of us: To develop agricultures based on perennial systems that supply their own water. In Saudi Arabia, that would mean reforesting the hijaz, using the forest as the basis for the production of nuts, fruits, forage, medicines, oils, dairy, poultry, and red meats. The forest would initiate a cascade of rainfall that would eventually push east beyond the mountain range and allow for the afforestation of the entire Arabian Peninsula. As the forest expanded east it would bring the rain with it.
Not only would this allow for the entire Arabian Peninsula to be converted to productive landscape, & dramatically increase rainfall, but it would permanently solve the Gulf’s water and food security issues, eliminate the urbanization of the rural poor (which brings its own associated social ills of poverty, prostitution, drug abuse, and crime), and create an entirely new sector of the economy that currently does not exist. This is the only environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable solution to Saudi Arabia’s water and food security. The patterns used in that design, the ideas and philosophies and methods behind its implementation are also the only sustainable solution for human society in general.