US Ambassador Anne Patterson stands at the cargo city in Cairo International Airport, celebrating the announcement that Egyptian strawberries can be exported to the US market.
Patterson grasps a crimson strawberry with camera lenses for an audience, and the US Embassy in Cairo’s official Facebook page posts a song by Egyptian folk singer El-Rayes Metaal called “Strawberries, come buy strawberries from me.”
This is not a satirical snapshot from Bassem Youssef’s El-Barnameg, or from the Asa7by online sarcasm society. It happened last week, after Washington decided to open the American market to Egyptian strawberries.
Ambassador Patterson did not waste an opportunity to say the United States is committed to continuing to work with Egypt to enhance the opportunities for Egyptian exports to enter American markets, adding that increasing trade between the two countries is “a fundamental component of boosting economic development and employment in Egypt.”
Thus, exporting the first shipment of home grown strawberries to the US market is meant to lead to the opening up of other new markets for Egyptian fruit. This fruit symbolises the predicament of Egypt’s economic policy. Or in fact, it could even represent the state of Egyptian politics at large, enduring after the fall of Mubarak.
The Strawberry Era
Egypt is the fourth largest exporter of strawberries in the world, exporting $59 million worth of the fruit annually. With these “broad horizons,” cultivated land for the fruit has increased in recent years, following directives in the mid-80s by agriculture minister Youssef Wally.
The area of land allocated to growing strawberries may not be large, but it is part of a drive for profit driven by the global market which gives priority to exports over domestic needs. Such a directive added Cantaloupe to our diets, and made us waste precious irrigation water through growing rice over large areas to take advantage of global demand.
These polices have led to greater reliance on food and grain imports. The World Food Programme informs us in its September 2012 report that Egypt’s dependency on grain imports grew from 38 percent in 2006/2007 to 45 percent in 2011/2012, and from 46 percent to 56 percent for wheat during the same period.
The dependency on imports has meant greater susceptibility to global grain prices, particularly wheat, especially in light of the crisis of grain prices in 2007/2008. The dependency on imports also applies substantial pressure on the Egyptian pound, and on the budget deficit with regards to wheat subsidies. Not to mention inflation that reached 24 percent in 2008 because of the crisis, which hurt the living standards of Egypt’s poor.
The second element of agricultural policy that was slanted towards profit and global markets was the lease of agricultural land law of 1996. In an important study entitled 'The marginalisation of the small peasantry: Egypt and Tunisia' published in 2012 in a book titled 'Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt and the Middle East', Tunisian academic Habib Ayeb says increasing competition over agricultural resources, land and water, and the different mechanisms for stripping small-scale farmers of ownership rights in both Egypt and Tunisia, has led to the marginalisation of farmers in the countryside of both countries.
Ayeb reports that in 2010, after years of implementing the lease of agricultural land law with the intention of uniting scattered lands into larger farms, 43.5 percent of farmers possess one acre of land or less, and 90 percent of farmers own half of the cultivated land at a rate of less than five acres and only 3 percent of farmers control 33.5 percent of the land.
The lease of agricultural land law destroyed the renters’ faction completely (approximately one million farmers). “Many investigations have shown that almost 80 percent of farmers work half of the time or all the time outside of their own lands, either with larger farmers or in management or services or in the business sector, or even through migration to the city or abroad,” the study said.
The policy of supporting large-scale farmers has led to increased fragmentation in small scale ownership, forcing peasants deeper and deeper into the pit of poverty, while agreements and treaties are being signed, and talks emerge to protect exporters and their large farms. The market’s drive to make profit has superseded feeding the people, and so we export strawberries and grapes, and the exporters make profit, and we are driven to import wheat and beans, while Egyptians starve.
We do not need QIZ for strawberries?
On 7 January, Sherif El-Beltagy, chairman of Egypt's Agricultural Export Council, comforted Egyptians with a press release declaring “Egypt has exceeded Israel in exports of strawberries, grapes and oranges, to the extent that the most famous Israeli supermarket chain in Europe purchases Egyptian agricultural produce.” He did not forget to indicate, “Israel is still ahead of us in producing seeds and flowers.”
El-Beltagy denied the need for the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) protocol in the sector to guarantee breaking into the US market. And he is right, as proven by recent developments: we do not need the QIZ for the sake of strawberries.
Have you ever tasted “Sharoun?” Did you buy your wife and kids “Aldoret”? Or maybe “Alofera?” You might have, for these are the Israeli varieties of strawberries grown in Egypt. The US does not need to implement the regulations of an Israeli quota in the QIZ, for it is indeed present and has been a part of our agriculture for years, in parallel with direct US intervention to the extent of using genetically enhanced crops, promoted by the US, in the face of scientific debate and controversy. These crops were rejected by other countries, including India. And so, strawberries complete the components of the model that is forced upon our agriculture.
Strawberries and social justice
Only a few people are aware that the contribution of the agriculture sector to our economic growth reached 20 percent in the first half of the current fiscal year, in comparison to 11 percent for tourism, after farmers moved towards growing wheat and cotton. Yet farming does not elicit as much attention as tourism, despite the fact that agricultural reform directly influences the redistribution of income to the poor, and saves billions of dollars for the country’s reserves. It also impacts national independence.
So, how is post-revolution Egypt to progress, safe from American, and possibly Israeli, intervention while 56 percent of its wheat is imported, a trend not limited merely to wheat? To face such a problem, the economic reform programme presented by the cabinet to the International Monetary Fund, is limited to agricultural procedures that follow the same framework of the old inherited policies, in fact it celebrates exporting strawberries to the United States, and is satisfied with a few cosmetic touches, such as providing diesel for farmers and, (praise the Lord) delaying farmland taxes. For your information, the programme was limited to only four procedures.
There can be no social justice without wheat and without a revolution in Egypt’s agriculture that helps small-scale farmers. There is no guarantee for the autonomy and democracy of our country without a guarantee for food sovereignty.
Thank you to Ambassador Patterson, and the folks at the embassy, we do appreciate El-Rayes Metaal, yet we might prefer another song: “The wheat, tonight is its night, may God bless it and increase it, its stem is a braid of pearls, and life exists because it is present.”
This article was first published in Al-Shorouk daily.