Last week, Saudi Agriculture 2014, the 33rd international agriculture, water, and agro-industry trade show, took place at the International Convention and Exhibition Center in Riyadh.
Organic farming was one of the topics addressed at the exhibition. Under the patronage of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Organic Agriculture (DOA) participated with its own organic farming pavilion, a joint venture with on one side the ministry and the German GIZ International Services’ “Organic Farming Project” and on the other the Saudi Organic Farming Association (SOFA).
The pavilion gave organic farmers and other stakeholders the opportunity to showcase their products and services. Also present was the Qassim-based Organic Research Center, which not only provided an insight to its fields of research, but also displayed a range of organic products.
Saudi Gazette spoke to Ayman Al-Ghamdi, general manager of the Department of Organic Agriculture as well as general supervisor of the Organic Farming Project, who said this was the 7th time his department participated in the show – this year with a pavilion that was three times the size of the first one in 2008.
According to Al-Ghamdi, organic agriculture in the Kingdom is currently booming: “The number of certified organic farming was 10 in 2000. The awareness of the society was weak regarding organic products. Today, there are more than 112 organic farms, certified according to Saudi organic standards,” Al-Ghamdi said, adding that awareness and knowledge about organic products had been slowly but steadily increasing over the past years.
As a result, the demand for Saudi organic products, especially fresh produce, is continuously increasing. Nowadays, consumers are able to purchase organic products not only at local food markets and specialized organic dealers, but also in hypermarkets. Due to the high demand, however, meeting local production with local demand has been among the main challenges the Saudi organic sector faces, according to the general manager.
Growth of the organic sector in the Kingdom. The sector has not been booming ever since organic farming was initiated in the country. Before 2000, less than a handful of agricultural companies and individual farmers grew their produce organically. Five years later, the Ministry of Agriculture incorporated the organic farming activity and contacted GIZ International Services (the consultancy service of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit or German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation) to develop the organic sector in the country. As of 2014, the number of organic farmers reached 112, the organic land area is 33,709 hectare and the under-conversion land area 2,889 ha. The latter refers to land that is in the transition of becoming organic, which usually takes two to three years, depending on the type of crop.
The organic animal production is 3,575, while the number of under-conversion organic animals is 803, in addition to 772 beehives. The number of under-conversion birds is 883, Al-Ghamdi noted.
In the relatively short period organic agriculture has been present in the Kingdom, various major goals have been achieved, Al-Ghamdi further said. “All procedures and legislations in addition to the administrative, monitoring, surveillance, and research have been formulated.” He added that creating awareness regarding the environmental benefits, or “spreading the culture of organic farming among Saudi organic farmers and consumers” had been the first important step.
Throughout the years, he continued, milestones were “the foundation of the Saudi Organic Farming Association (SOFA) in 2007, the foundation of the Department of Organic Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture in 2008, and the conversion of Qassim Farming Research Center into an organic Farming Center related to the Ministry in 2011.”
Recently, an Organic Farming Law has been approved by the Council of Ministers, which will further enhance the organic farming movement in the Kingdom.
Al-Ghamdi is convinced organic agriculture is here to stay, and that its importance cannot be overestimated: “It conveys a clear and strong message to all farmers that high-quality and healthy foods can be produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”
The main principle of organic farming, he continued, is to grow fresh, tasty and healthy foods with environmentally friendly methods, respecting the farm ecosystem balance and protecting biodiversity.
And, as the demand is already there, expanding the organic sector in the Kingdom will ensure consumers can obtain organic products, whether these are local, imported, fresh or processed, Al-Ghamdi moreover said.
A few years ago, the minister of agriculture requested Al-Ghamdi’s department to develop a national organic farming policy to set the framework for the implementation of the future organic agricultural policy in Saudi Arabia. This project was concluded in 2012, the general manager said. “This year, we elaborated a future 5-year organic agricultural action plan to implement the most essential goals of the organic agricultural policy. This plan is proposed to be implemented in the beginning of 2016 or 2017.”
In addition to that, the department is determined to show its presence at the country’s biggest agricultural events to keep spreading awareness and provide a variety of local organic products from all over the country.
“Our role is provide a stage to all the organic operators, whether they are farmers, marketers, input companies or others and present them to all, showing the specialists and fans how far the organic farming has been developed and prospers,” Al-Ghamdi added.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette.