Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Ezzeddin Abu Steit recently announced that an increase of 50 per cent would be allowed in the land allocated for rice cultivation this season. 1,074000 feddans will be cultivated with rice this year instead of 724,000 feddans last year, he said (one feddan is 1.038 acres).
The decision aimed to increase production and reduce the country’s imports bill in order to save foreign currency, he said. A ministerial plan is currently being applied targeting the increased productivity of agricultural land by promoting new kinds of high-quality rice with low water consumption.
Abu Steit said that according to Ministerial Decree 65/2019, the area of land available for rice cultivation this year would be divided into three.
The first 724,000 feddans will be irrigated by Nile water, while the second 200,000 feddans will be cultivated with new kinds of rice able to tolerate less water.
A third area of 150,000 feddans will be irrigated with recycled water. The rice cultivation season runs from May to September.
Ragab Shehata, head of the Rice Division at the Federation of Egyptian Industries, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision was a positive one and a step towards achieving a balance between rice production and consumption.
The area allocated for rice cultivation has been a controversial issue over the past few years. The government has said that owing to water shortages a reduction in rice production has been required. However, there have been concerns that rice shortages in local markets as a result could lead to the increase in price of an important food staple.
In 2017, Egypt’s rice production stood at four million tons, while local consumption was three million tons. Egypt exported the one million tons of rice that exceeded consumption.
However, experts say that exporting rice is like exporting water because it is a crop that requires a great deal of water at a time when Egypt faces an annual water deficit of around seven billion cubic metres, according to the UN.
To rationalise water consumption and balance the production and consumption of rice, the government decided in 2018 to reduce the area available for rice cultivation from 1.7 million to 724,000 feddans.
The Ministry of Agriculture has started to apply strict regulations on growing rice. Farmers are no longer able to cultivate rice unless their land is located in an area designated by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Rice cultivation is allowed in the Delta governorates but is prohibited in Upper Egypt, South Sinai, Marsa Matrouh, Qalioubiya, Menoufiya, Cairo and Giza.
Farmers who violate the rules are subject to penalties under Law 12/1984. Mohamed Abdel-Kader, a farmer who lives in Meet Ghamr in the Daqahliya governorate, cultivated rice although it was forbidden in his area and he had to pay a fine as a result.
Abdel-Kader said that this year the fines had doubled, so the farmers in his village had decided to stop growing rice.
Due to the government’s decision to cut rice cultivation, production decreased to 2.6 million tons while consumption remained at three million tons in 2018. The gap between consumption and production was covered by increasing imports of rice.
However, rice prices also increased. A ton of rice sold at LE6,000 at the beginning of 2018 has now surged to LE8,000, according to Abdel-Kader.
Ali Abdel-Rahman, head of the International Union for the Environment and Development, said it was the government’s fault that prices had jumped. It was now spending foreign currency importing rice that was lower in quality than the local produce and did not suit Egyptian tastes, he said.
“The government announced that the aim of cutting rice production last year was to rationalise the use of Nile water, yet 80 per cent of rice cultivation depends on salt water from the Mediterranean Sea or reused agricultural water,” Abdel-Rahman said.
He doubted whether an increase in rice production would help reduce prices because traders would not permit the prices to drop, stockpiling rice at the first signs of trouble, he said.
Shehata said that rice was currently available at between LE8 and LE10 for an unpacked kg. Imported rice from India, China and Russia, in addition to around 500,000 tons of surplus from the previous season, had helped to stabilise prices, he said.
However, Mohamed Ismail, the owner of a supermarket in New Cairo, said that rice prices varied from LE14 to LE20 per packed kg. During the past six months, sales of rice had been down by 50 per cent due to increases in prices, he said.
Most consumers preferred to buy unpacked rice at LE11 per kg or eat pasta and bread instead, Ismail said.
Shehata explained that prices could differ according to a district’s standard of living and that some well-known brands sold rice at higher prices. Consumers were free to select products according to their needs, he said.
The Daqahliya, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Sharqiya, Beheira and Gharbiya governorates have the largest areas given over to rice. The highest rice production over the past 10 years was in 2008, when it reached 7.3 million tons
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards security in rice