Muscat: Farmers are abandoning their lands at an alarming rate, making the government's drive of promoting local crops over imported ones a difficult one.
In 1973, over 60 per cent of Oman's population depended on farming but with rapid development that led to the creation of thousands of jobs, the percentage dropped to 40 in 1985 and 25 by the year 2000. Now the percentage of Omani people earning their livelihood through farming has dwindled to just 15 per cent.
You can blame the progress spurred by the economic boom for farming woes. The younger generation now prefers office jobs instead of toiling on the land from dawn to dusk. When you drive through the Batinah region, once Oman's showcase for farming excellence, decaying signs of cultivated areas of dates, limes, mangoes, water melons, carrots and cucumbers are everywhere. But the rot is fast spreading elsewhere. When old farmers die, their children sell off the land to property developers to make way for further industrial boom.
Sohar and Liwa is one good example of that. With the petrochemical and steel industries taking off in the last decade, fertile farming lands were razed to the ground making way to build accommodations for workers. That also took the toll of the government's plans to reduce dependency on imported food.
One former farmer typified the problem by saying a cheque of OMR3.5 million tipped the balance when it was his time to decide. The sentiment involving selling the farm that provided the livelihood to four generations of his ancestors was no contest to the fat payoff.
But not all farms have an attractive price tag; in fact, a majority do not attract such big tags. But they sell them off because the government's subsidy is not enough to convince farmers to continue with their efforts. To them, subsidy is still a lifeline. Most subsidies go towards water irrigation and pesticides, leaving them with no money for seeds, transportation or cold storage for their produce.
Technology has also let them down. While the rest of the world uses scientific tools to grow and harvest their foods, Omani farmers have no idea that advanced techniques are available to help improve their crops. Some technocrats in the government's corridors of power say that spending money on farmers who are not educated enough about scientific methods is a waste of funds. Opinion is divided among the environmentalists on the use of water irrigation.
Oman being a desert, farmers need to use a lot of water to grow their crops. They want to see desalination plants supplying farmers but the financial planners say that such overheads are unthinkable. While some government quarters want to ease food security problems, they now know a sustainable solution for the farmers is crucial. On the other hand, livestock farming is also going through a dire period. Locally produced milk, beef and mutton are not yet well positioned to take the market by storm. Lack of financing, according to livestock farmers, is one of the reasons why local meat is not making its mark.
The other reason is the attitude of the consumers. Omanis are not patriotic enough to support foods produced by their compatriots. The market is flooded with imported meat, milk, fruits and vegetables.
Distributors are happy to continue with famous brands and retailers will not change their mind when it comes to sidestepping locally produced products. The last nail in the coffin of local farmers is hammered in by consumers who prefer to buy foreign foods on the pretext that Omani produce is of inferior quality.
A change of strategy is needed to protect the farmers. Subsidy is still a salvation for the farming industry but is not enough to sway the buying decisions of the consumers.
The government must introduce a protection mechanism to prevent the farming industry from falling apart. Import duties of five per cent on certain agricultural produce, like fruits and vegetables, would help improve the marketability of local farmers. Such a decision would stop the erosion of the farming lands and increase the efficiency of the farmers. It will give a boost to the economy and make farming more attractive to the future generations, besides boosting food security.