Building Qatar’s Food Security Infrastructure

Spotlight | Mark Velders

Research Matters Newsletter,
Qatar National Research Fund
29th of April 2021

Building Qatar’s Food Security Infrastructure

In the past few years, Qatar has committed substantial efforts and resources to strengthen its food security and develop the local farming, poultry, livestock, and fisheries sectors. To outline a clear framework for improving food production, supply, storage, and trade; the Qatar National Food Security Strategy 2018-2023 has been developed to build a robust plan to improve Qatar’s food security.

This month, we feature an interview with Mark Velders, a food security expert, to understand the steps Qatar has been taking towards strengthening its food security and learn about its progress so far. Mr. Velders is an agriculture engineer and consultant to the Qatar National Food Security Initiative coordinated by the Food Security Department at MME. He is also a partner in The Conscious Farmer, an international consultancy assisting farmers and growers phasing out agriculture chemicals and switching to more biological production methods.

Kindly read the interview below:

  1. Can you briefly outline the main objectives of the Qatar National Food Security Strategy 2018-2023 and how is Qatar progressing towards achieving these goals?

In a nutshell, Qatar’s Food Security strategy aims to improve Qatar’s National Food Security in the most sustainable way by focusing on four pillars including strategic reserves, domestic self-sufficiency, international trade and logistics, and domestic markets.

Over the past few years, we have been successful in improving our domestic self-sufficiency in fresh poultry, dairy, meat, fish, and vegetables, and are now positioned to embark on the second step of increasing production. In the next phase, Qatar plans to implement aquaculture projects that will relieve the pressure off of the local fish stocks and help enhance sustainable levels of fishing and fish stock management in Qatar.

Moreover, Qatar plans for all animal fodder to be grown using recycled water instead of groundwater by 2025 along with establishing organic waste to organic fertilizer production facilities. This will immensely minimize waste and at the same time improve Qatar’s arable lands. All these initiatives are aimed at protecting and improving Qatar’s natural resources, freshwater aquifers, fish stocks, and arable lands for future generations.

In the pillar of international trade, we ensure that steps are taken to reduce trade and trade route dependencies as diversifying trade partners prevents dependence on a single partner to import essential staples like rice or lentils. Contingency planning for trade disruptions assists in keeping our trade options open in the case of any trade route disruption. Due to this approach, we have received positive and encouraging feedback from traders and retailers about Qatar’s preparedness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Lastly, the pillar of domestic markets aims to develop policies to improve the transparency, efficiency, and fairness of the local supply chain to ensure that our local farmers get a fair price for their goods through our fully operational farm support program which is assisting over 200 growers in Qatar. We are also in the process of developing and implementing policies to minimize food loss in the supply chain.

  1. What is the uniqueness of the challenges that Qatar and the region face in terms of food security?

It is obvious that our climate and land conditions are not favorable for local food production. However, we are not alone as there are other countries we can learn from that face the same problems including Singapore, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, and other countries with limited arable lands and comparable food security issues. However, Qatar’s combined arid lands and an extremely hot and humid climate add to the complexities of its difficulties. This unique set of challenges has triggered various R&D initiatives to innovate viable solutions to irrigate lands that are non-arable and help local farmers and growers adapt to an unfavorable climate that is too harsh for local food production.

  1. What role/responsibility does the local community have in strengthening Qatar’s food security?

Our local community members are all consumers but are also traders, retailers, food processors, food producers, researchers, students, and policymakers. We all make up the food system of Qatar. All of us are implementation partners and are an integral part of the foundation for the development, implementation, and follow-up of our Food Security initiative. We plan to soon organize community dialogues where we will invite the local community and stakeholders to participate in productive discussions about our strategy, co-create, and improve the Qatar Food System as we know it to make it even more secure, resilient, sustainable, and healthy.

Read the original article on: Spotlight | Mark Velders (qnrf.org)

Searching for the (real) cause of a ToBRFV infection

The Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) originated in 2014 in the Middle East but is now a threat to all growers, wherever they are. The virus makes no distinction between conventional and organic growers. Once infected, both growers have to completely disinfect their greenhouse, keep it clean and do everything they can in order to prevent the virus from returning. However, not everyone succeeds in this, given the recurring infections at various growers.

The outbreak of ToBRFV prompted organic crop consultants Aldo van Os and Mark Velders of The Conscious Farmer (TCF) to develop a practical preventive protocol but also to seek an answer to the question of why the virus is able to spread so rapidly and on such a large scale.

Seeking experience
Together, they looked for practical experiences as soon as the virus emerged. “You need practical experience to distinguish the right thing from the stream of information that arose after the first outbreaks. Moreover, the prevention protocols that soon emerged were often too theoretical and difficult to apply for growers,” say Aldo and Mark.

After searching for some time, the TCF advisers finally found an ‘expert by experience’. A German crop consultant had experience with seven German conventional growers who were infected with the virus in 2018. Together with her, TCF developed a prevention protocol that is easily applicable for organic growers.

The very practical document has only 15 pages. “Complete with a simple list of cleaning agents and disinfectants that are permitted in organic farming,” says Mark. “And including instructions on how and where to use them.”


Photos of ToBRFV infection in the conventional culture. Left: bubbled and discolored leaves. Right: Discoloration and death of leaves due to ToBRFV in a crop of the Juanita variety.
Photographs courtesy of: Scholz-Döbelin, Regional Plant Protection Service of Germany

Identifying the cause
The TCF consultants also came into contact with a non-European grower who grows organically on cocosubstrate slabs. This grower had suffered a ToBRFV infection in two of his greenhouses. Although the infestation was small, it soon proved to be no less persistent.

The TCF protocol was used at both of the grower’s locations. At one location, the virus never returned, but it did at the other. And, even worse, the virus came back stronger than before.

This prompted the TCF consultants to ask how this could happen. “When we came into contact with the grower in question, he was already at an advanced stage of cleaning and disinfecting the greenhouse,” says Mark. “Without knowing it himself, it turned out that he had not correctly implemented a few important details. For example, the mechanical cleaning of the greenhouse, the first essential step in the protocol, had not been done thoroughly.” Besides, the disinfectants and cleaning agents had been mixed when used instead of being applied separately. “As a result, one agent neutralized the effect of the other.”

Soil
In the end, inadequate disinfection in the drain water system turned out to be the culprit. Aldo: “The disinfection capacity was simply not enough to really kill the virus. And because all the greenhouse compartments were connected to that drainage system, the virus could spread widely the second time.” For this season, the grower has improved the disinfection in the drain water system. We will now have to wait and see whether the virus stays away for good.

The same grower also grows tomatoes outdoors in a small greenhouse. Whereas conventional growers can remove the substrate mats from the greenhouse, the situation is different with the soil of an organic grower. “We are still working with this grower to get the virus out of the soil. In Israel, successful results have been achieved with steaming and activating soil life. We are going to work on that now. We are also still looking for an effective biological treatment method for the seed. Chemicals are not allowed in organic cultivation and heat treatment does not work with this virus”, Mark emphasizes. “There seem to bee initial positive test results with a biologically responsible disinfection of the seeds”, Aldo adds.


Photos of a ToBRFV infection of the Romanella variety. Here also photos from conventional cultivation. There are no photos of the organic case in this story. Taking photographs was not permitted.
Photos with permission: Scholz-Döbelin, regional plant protection service Germany

The real cause
The question remains what the real cause of such a virus outbreak is. This last question intrigues TCF’s advisers the most. “Only when we understand what the virus is telling us will we come closer to a real solution,” says Mark.

In addition to disinfection and prevention, Mark and Aldo observe that the market is currently focusing strongly on resistance. A good development, but one that also raises questions. Mark: “Rudolf Steiner stated a hundred years ago that viruses – in humans, animals and plants – only get a chance when the integrity of the identity is weakened.” Don’t viruses today get more of a chance because breeding has gone too far?, he wonders aloud. “You may also be able to depart too far from the ‘bloodline’ of a plant in breeding,” Aldo adds. “We do know that much of the resistance to new viruses is found in the older wild varieties.” Mark and Aldo, themselves not breeders, do not know the definitive answer, but it does keep them busy.

What also matters, the advisors explain, is that over the years cultivation, including organic cultivation, has intensified and trade has globalized. Aldo: “Fifty years ago, the greenhouses of growers were still small, there were fewer viruses, new viruses did not emerge as quickly and, because of localized trade, viruses spread less quickly. Of course, that also plays a role.

The necessary studies have already been done on the virus itself. And there are still plenty of studies being done at the moment. “It has long been known that Tobamoviruses (of which ToBRFV is one) can survive on dry plant material for decades,” Mark points out. “But recently, an Israeli researcher discovered that in healthy, sufficiently moist soil the virus does not survive for more than a month. That is of course very interesting, especially for the organic growers among us,” concludes Mark.

Until there is a definitive answer to the question of where the virus comes from, Mark and Aldo see that there is no other option than to keep the greenhouses clean, the soil or substrate healthy, to choose the strongest plants, and to divide the greenhouses into compartments to minimize the financial risk of a virus infection.

Read the original press release on: Hortidaily.com

“Integration of practical experience and science, a golden combination”

Aldo van Os and The Conscious Farmer, more than one year underway

How are things going with Aldo van Os, the organic grower who stopped last year to start coaching (organic) growers, with his partner Mark Velders of The Conscious Farmer? Good, as it shows after reading the story below in which both gentlemen share their experiences. “Organic crop protection and fertilization are often a challenge for our customers, and running a professional organic organisation often is too. Particularly in those fields, we have been able to help our customers over the past year”, Mark, the agricultural engineer within TCF, summarises from Doha.

Doha, you read it well. Mark is working on a project in Qatar en Aldo is with a customer in North-Germany at the moment of the interview. Both gentlemen advise internationally and have traveled often during the last year. Their brand new training center in Germany, the TCF home base, was shut down for a few weeks due to the Corona crisis, however they also have not sat still there.

Photo right: Mark Velders in a greenhouse in Doha, Qatar

For planet earth
One of the spearheads of The Conscious Farmer is organic greenhouse horticulture. In this trade, Mark and Aldo give substance to their motto ‘I am the Earth’ on a day-to-day basis. “Working with nature and biology, instead of chemistry, that is our dedication. We can all see the natural infrastructure deteriorating (look at the news about the disappearance of insects, farmland birds or fish mortality), for which the finger is often pointed at someone else. We believe planet earth is our own responsibility, and our work is based on this commitment.”

Coaching on the job
Does it actually work, working with nature and biology? This is often still the question. “One of our customers, Jakob Johannson, Westhof in Germany, recently gave part of the answer. ‘Aldo’s coaching on the job takes our company to the champions league!’. And that is great feedback.”

Thirty years of experience in working with the plant and biology has made us alert Jakob noticed. Acquired an eye for detail. In the organic horticulture, it is particularly about those details. Clients who make the switch from conventional tot organic often need time to get used to that. Being used to chemistry, you end up being less alert. But you can train that and that is exactly what Aldo does. ‘Coaching on the job” is what we call this, in which the grower continually achieves higher levels of working, without chemicals, good for the Earth.”


Aldo van Os (l) and Jakob Johannson (r) in the greenhouses of Westhof Bio-Gemüse

Practical knowledge with scientific foundation
Aldo works closely with Mark Velders. Aldo is a fourth generation grower, Mark an agricultural engineer from Wageningen University. Aldo is the practical man, Mark the scientist. “Science and practice are often far removed from one another”, Aldo explains, “but with Mark and me, they come together in the TCF”. More than a year after their foundation, it  has proven a golden combination.

In the last year, The Conscious Farmer could be seen in Canada, Mexico, Arizona, Germany and Qatar. Aldo also worked with various Dutch organic growers. “Because we combine science and decades of experience, working with nature becomes very practical and well founded.”

More production with less fertilizer
Mark points to their fertilizer recommendations. “In conventional cultivation, you replenish a shortage by adding more. In organic agriculture and horticulture, that does not work. You first have to get to the bottom of things. Shortages or excesses often stand for something else. So you have to tackle things holistically and thoroughly. Our approach immediately saves on fertilizer cost and over time production also increases. An eye for nature, it really works!”

Stronger soil life, less Pythium
Another example, “Pythium is a hardy soil disease and an often-recurring problem. At a customer in Mexico, our integrated advice reduced Pythium plant failures from more than 10% to less than 3% in three months. An eye for the essence: oxygen and temperature in soil and water, strengthened by a healthy soil life. If that basis is in order, Pythium has much less of a chance. Without that, it is like pushing water uphill.”

Besides recommendations on cultivation, they also cover the organisation. Particularly Aldo has much practical experience in this field, as he already told last year. “In companies where I was active as a manager in the beginning of my career, others noticed how quiet things were in the greenhouse. Nevertheless, I achieved high yields per square meter and the costs were always low, without stress or overtime. When the basis is in order, there is calm in the greenhouse and you have the flexibility to deal with unexpected obstacles, that always occur in organic cultivation. This prevents ad hoc decisions, which can cost a lot of time and money.”

Making their own compost
More and more customers of TCF were getting convinced of the value of compost this year, as Aldo and Mark noticed. “They want to know more, and be able to do more, themselves. Together with befriended experts, we developed a workshop, especially for commercial growers, about how they can make their own compost and compost tea. Customized for their soil, their crop, and very practical. The workshop is offered online and, even better, soon on location at our training center in Germany.”

Training center with own organic food garden
In Germany, in Sauerland to be precise, no further than two hours driving from the Dutch border, a former hotel was modified into a training center. “Due to the Corona crisis, everything came to a halt for

The training location is now suited for groups up to thirty persons, including overnight stays with organic breakfast. “We are constructing a food garden in which various layers of crops grow next and below each other. Nuts, berries, fruit, herbs and various vegetables in one place. There is no agricultural system that is more productive and sustainable. It is beautiful to see how it develops, with so much life, flowers, insects and birds. And this is only the first year. The beauty and workings of nature. Nice to take our students there with us soon.”a while, but we have not been sitting still. We have revived this beautiful location, refreshed it, but left it in its authentic state.”

“Thanks to our customers and befriended experts, we strengthen and broaden the knowledge and experience of our trade. So necessary to regain faith in biology and the intelligence of nature”, according to Aldo and Mark. At the end of the interview they conclude, also on behalf of the other partners in TCF: “The past year was a 100% organic and fertile year!”

Read the original article on: Hortidaily

“Nature has a lot to offer, but you have to learn to work with it”

Last summer it was still a matter of “intention”, but now there is also a real building. A training center in Sauerland in Germany to be precise. Renovated this summer, so that from this autumn, former independent organic grower Aldo van Os and Wageningen engineer Mark Velders, together with four partners in the collective The Conscious Farmer, can share their experience, knowledge and skills. The official opening is on Saturday afternoon, November 9, 2019

‘I am the Earth’
The motto at the Sauerland training center is ‘I am the Earth’. Mark: “That statement literally puts us with both feet on the ground every day. When we realize this, we deal with agriculture and food in a fundamental different way. In our opinion it is time to start feeling that personal bond with the earth and to work from that connection. That is not always easy, it is quickly overlooked.”

Cooperation between grower, nature and crop
According to Aldo, this involves the cooperation between grower, nature and crop. Mark agrees: “We depend on what nature has to offer. That is a lot, but you have to learn to work with it.” Aldo continues: “If that is connected, we achieve structural improvements together and will often yields good results. That is a process. Every day again it is watching, figuring out, working out and trying out. By this you develop the right approach for your cultivation, step by step. Timing based on years of experience, knowledge and intuition is crucial. ”

Hands-on experience
Next to giving advice and training, it remains important to keep in touch with day-to-day-practice. Although Aldo is no longer an independent grower,  he is, just like Mark (who is active in one of the Gulf States to increase food security in a sustainable manner), still busy in greenhouses working with both hands and feet in the earth. He is currently working on a number of projects in the Netherlands, Canada, the United States and Mexico with a variety of challenges.


The training center for organic, dynamic agriculture and food, in development

For a broad audience
Seminars, workshops and training sessions will be held in Sauerland, with the intention of addressing a wide audience. From growers to traders, from policymakers to investors and from students to consumers, whereby cooperation and sharing in groups and in networks will form the basis. “Anyone who wants to do so is very welcome in our center, which is independently financed and not dependent on any institution or supplier,” Aldo and Mark conclude.

“Organic cultivation revolves around a balanced interaction between people and the earth”

The idea of becoming a coach for organic growers to make a leap in quality and return on investment and to help conventional growers switch over, has been with Aldo van Os for a number of years. Because he had his own organic farm for the past nine years, it never quite happened. But now it has, because his company was sold at the beginning of the year and he can start working with full focus on sharing his knowledge about organic growing. “Together with five partners from business and science, I am entering into a new partnership with The Conscious Farmer (TCF). Our goal is to help increase organic production, deepen the knowledge and skills of the profession and also to take myself a few steps further.”

The motto with which Aldo and his partners set to work is: “I am the earth”. A bold statement, both Aldo and Friso van der Wal, one of the partners, realize. “We are connected to the earth, the earth is in us. If you realize that, you deal with agriculture and horticulture and food differently.”

The organizational side of organic growing

A major start has been made with a large project in Canada. “I have been active for a few months as a coach at an organic company in Canada that wants to make a quality improvement. They wanted to see if it could be different and better and then approached me to come and have a look in my greenhouse.

Less than a day later they were already on the phone asking if I could come and help on location. In other words, coaching on the spot. As a coach, I help improve organic cultivation methods, including training two growers who can run this large greenhouse horticulture business independently over time.”

The cultivation side with, among other things, biological fertilization and pest control and ensuring an optimal climate in the greenhouse immediately catches the eye, but according to Aldo the organizational side is just as important.

Growers can turn to him about both aspects of organic business. Aldo: “In companies where I was active as a manager at the start of my career, others noticed how calm it was in my greenhouse. Nevertheless, I achieved high yields per square meter and my costs were always low, without stress or overtime. When the basics are in order, there is peace in the greenhouse and you have the time to deal with unexpected issues down the road. And there are actually always those in organic cultivation. With this you prevent ad hoc decisions, which can cost a lot of time and money.”

A healthy earth, a healthy plant, a healthy product

According to Aldo, it is all about a grower’s collaboration with nature and crop. “If that is connected to each other, you arrive at solutions to problems. That is a process. Every day is looking again, sorting out, working out, trying out. And so you develop the right approach for your cultivation step by step. Timing is important in this. You do that based on years of experience, knowledge and your intuition.”

Mark Velders, agricultural engineer and also a partner in TCF, says about this: “My experience is that it pays to work with the forces of nature instead of putting them out of play. Nature is often very capable of repairing and preventing problems itself. You can use that capacity as a grower.”

The partners continue to say: “An important foundation in organic cultivation is also healthy soil. When you grow in healthy soil, plants are by definition less susceptible to pests and diseases. Our goal is a healthy earth, a healthy crop and a healthy product without chemicals.”

Aldo van Os stops as a grower and is going to coach (organic) growers

At the beginning of February it appeared as a simple, short announcement on the website of real estate agent Vollebregt-Barten: “Sold: organic greenhouse horticulture company in IJsselmuiden”. However, there is a whole story behind that statement. Aldo van Os, because that is of course the grower linked to the announcement, stops after 30 years as a grower and will continue as a coach of (organic) growers. “For a number of years I have been thinking about doing more in the field of coaching.”

Aldo has transferred the 2.5-hectare organic nursery to the ‘neighbors’, the Gebroeders Vahl. As Organic nursery Vahl, they will continue to grow organic tomatoes. “André Vahl has been growing cucumbers conventionally for years. When he visited me in the garden, the specific smell of organic growing in the open field reminded him of the past. It made him long to grow organically too. When I put my company up for sale, everything was arranged rather quickly.”

Advisory role

Although Aldo stops as a grower, he will remain involved as an advisor to his former company. Just like his employees, who will remain active at the company at the request of the Vahl brothers. “Over the years I have developed a specific method of organic cultivation with high yields per square meter, but also with a self-developed method of biological control that has since been taken over by various other growers.”

Sharing knowledge with (organic) growers

In the coming years, Aldo will be supervising the switch for growers from conventional to organic cultivation methods. “In fact, in recent years I have already combined that role as a coach with my own cultivation company. For example, a conventional grower in central Netherlands has switched and I am currently also helping a large Canadian grower to improve their organic cultivation method, including management and everything that has to do with running a greenhouse horticulture business.”

More about his role as a “switch coach” and the transfer of his knowledge to (bio) growers will follow in a second article about his new partnership The Conscious Farmer.