Egyptians walking into high-end supermarkets are well-accustomed to finding a corner designated for the sale of organic and biodynamic products, which are free from all chemical additives and genetic modification. Still, prices for such products are often double those of regular goods. The decision to buy is often subjective, dependent on the buyer's personal perception of the manufacturer as the products do not carry any local certification guaranteeing that they are indeed organic or biodynamic.
That is about to change, as Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid issued a decree last week regulating the sale of organic and biodynamic goods. The decision comes on the back of complaints earlier this year that products on the market were not in fact what they were being claimed to be.
"Some producers claimed on their package that their goods were organic, just so they could stick a higher price tag on the products," Consumer Protection Agency board member and Heliopolis Consumer Protection Association Vice-President Salwa Shoukry told Al-Ahram Weekly. Shoukry added that consumers could not file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Agency, nor could they complain directly to the company, because there were no specifications in the first place that these companies could be held accountable for. Last week's decree is intended to correct this situation.
The ministerial decree states that manufacturers need to be accredited by specialised auditing companies. These auditing companies, as well as the manufacturers who receive the certification, need to register with the Egyptian Organisation for Standardisation and Quality (EOSQ). Manufacturers are not allowed to label their goods as organic without going through these procedures.
Furthermore, EOSQ reserves the right to inspect manufacturers' premises. Should a certified farm not be up to standard, the auditing company that provided the farm with the certificate will be closed down. Companies have been given a three- month grace period to get their houses in order. EOSQ will also issue a directory including the names of accredited manufacturers and auditors.
General Manager of ISIS Organic Food and Beverages Mamdouh Abul-Eish believes this decision will "reinstate trust in the industry". He said his company has no problem with the decision because the grace period gives producers time to adjust. Abul-Eish also explained that the necessary auditing companies already exist, because they were already accredited to grant United States and European certification. "Now they have to register to grant local certification as well," he said.
Abul-Eish added that there are several reasons why organic and biodynamic products are more expensive. For one, organic fertilisers are more expensive to make. Combating pests manually rather than chemically is more costly. Plots of land which employ an organic method are all small-scale, because the lack of support from the government for organic agriculture means economies of scale are not possible at the moment.
Moreover, Abul-Eish said land used for organic and biodynamic farming is given more time to rest between harvests. "Whereas regular land is cultivated with at least five crops per year, organically cultivated plots are planted three times only. This makes farming the land organically more costly for the farmer," he said.
Egyptian Association for Biodynamic Agriculture (EABA) General Manager Zakaria Haddad is also pleased with the new decree. He said this kind of regulation of the organic goods market is long overdue.
The purpose of EABA, according to Haddad, is to promote this type of biodynamic and organic agriculture because it preserves the soil and the environment as well as water. "It means a more sustainable mode of cultivation to preserve the land for future generations," Zakaria said. He added that there are five other similar associations working with farmers to improve the implementation of the needed procedures.
Currently, according to Abul-Eish, there are only 6,000 feddans (2.5 feddans equal one hectare) that are organically cultivated. He also estimated that organic goods are consumed by less than one per cent of the Egyptian population. That is attributed not only to the fact that many may not be able to afford the price, but also to the lack of awareness of the benefits, he said.