Fodder for Debate: Global Fuel for the Saudi Dairy Industry
February 11, 2016
In the desert about 50 miles southeast of Riyadh, Almarai Company operates six dairy mega-farms that together cover more land than Manhattan. Business is booming, with 170,000 cows producing over a billion liters of milk per year, much of it exported around the Middle East. Almarai’s farms are no local operation. The food to feed the cattle comes from all over the world.
Things were very different when Almarai put its first 300 cows out to pasture in 1977. With newfound oil wealth in the mid-1970s, Saudi Arabia sought food security by growing everything that it needed. Saudis tapped groundwater to feed, water, and cool the cattle, and to help build a sprawling wheat industry. But heavily milking Saudi’s aquifers has depleted these stores by 80 percent, and the government is now forcing producers to adapt. The latest in a series of bans on thirsty crops will phase out the cultivation of all green fodder by 2019.
Almarai is ahead of the curve—it has imported all of its fodder for the last five years from holdings on four continents. In keeping with its goal to remain “the world’s largest vertically integrated dairy company,” Almarai directly owns and operates many of these overseas farms, including wheat and alfalfa farms in Argentina, Arizona, and California.
Yet, many of the sources for Almarai’s fodder around the world face their own shortages of water, and even without the need to grow feed domestically, watering and cooling cattle is water intensive for Saudi farmers. While the Saudis created their dairy industry in order to be self-sufficient, sustaining it requires an increasingly complex network of international ties.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.