Protected agriculture started in Qatar in 1976 and the adoption of the technology has been extremely slow. However, ever since 1995, the area for protected agriculture has slowly and steadily increased to reach 92.2 hectares in 2007, representing about 1% of the cultivated area. Approximately 12% of farmers are using protected farming, with greenhouses being the dominating technology and their numbers ranging between two to 98 units per farm, with 40% of farms containing only five greenhouses. The majority of greenhouses are of the non refrigerated type, and so are used during the fall and winter seasons. The most common grown crops in greenhouses are cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, melons, beans and cut flowers with cucumbers being the most common (73% of the plastic houses).
ICARDA's long experience and research in the Arabian Peninsula has already demonstrated that protected agriculture represents a viable and valuable technological option for the Gulf countries. In Qatar the technology could become a major contributor to food self-sufficiency, particularly in vegetables and fruits.
Protected agriculture, with its associated modern techniques such as soilless culture and adequate integrated production and protection management, could substantially increase water productivity, save water, and minimize the use of agro-chemicals. For instance, tomato water productivity can be as high as 19 kg/m3 under cooled greenhouses (CGHs) whereas it does not exceed 3 kg /m3 in open field cultivation. Similarly, eggplants, which are becoming a popular crop in Qatar, have a water productivity of 11 kg/m3 under CGHs whereas their yield is only 3 kg/m3 under open field agriculture. Water productivity of sweet peppers grown in greenhouses ranges from 4 to 8 kg /m3 whereas it is only 1 kg/m3 in open field.
Although the profitability of protected agriculture, even using the current technology in Qatar, is much more than in open field production, there are a number of factors that need to be considered. Greenhouse vegetable production is a highly intensive enterprise requiring substantial labour and capital inputs. Because of this, potential growers have to carefully consider all of the factors necessary for a successful enterprise. Greenhouse vegetable production is in many ways a 24-hour-a-day commitment. Greenhouse maintenance, crop production, and handling emergencies require constant vigilance. Every 4,000 square feet of greenhouse space requires an estimated 25 to 30 hours of crop care and upkeep.
Greenhouse structures require constant maintenance and repair. Many of the selected greenhouse covers must be replaced on a regular basis. Heating, cooling, and watering systems must be maintained and routinely serviced. In addition, contingency plans and backup systems must be in place in case any of these major systems should break down. Even a one-day loss of cooling, heating or water during a critical period can result in complete crop failure.
The estimated investment cost for high-tech greenhouse production in the USA and Canada for tomatoes for example is between US $600,000 to US $1 million per hectare, plus variable costs. On the other hand, open field pre-harvest costs (including overheads and capital costs) range from US $3,000 to US $16,000 per hectare. Greenhouses can generate high yields, but given the high cost they generally need a high premium to be viable. Nevertheless, with a small investment, yield and water productivity can be improved through the net greenhouse (NGH) which represents a good option for medium and small scale farmers with limited resources. The NGH provides sufficient protection and enough ventilation for plants grown in areas where there is a mild winter such as Qatar.
Whereas increased use and adoption of this technology in Qatar will enhance its ability to increased self-sufficiency, there is need for further analysis of costs, implication on other factors of production and what type of subsidies could be provided.
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