Rice is essential to the Egyptian table. However, it has witnessed some ups and downs in terms of availability and price over recent years.
In 2016, the government banned the export of Egyptian rice following shortages in the market and decided to purchase rice directly from farmers to end the monopoly of merchants and other middlemen. It organised campaigns to make sure that merchants followed the prices set for resale, in an attempt to regulate rice prices and ban the monopoly practised by some merchants.
Even so, the price of a kg of rice leaped from LE5 to LE10 (depending on quality) in 2016 to LE25 to LE30 in 2023 despite efforts to put a cap on rocketing prices after a 2018 cabinet decision to decrease the amount of land planted with rice to save water.
Instead of the regular 1.7 million feddans planted annually with rice, only around 700,000 feddans were allowed to be cultivated (one feddan is 1.038 acres). The traditional method for growing rice is in flooded fields, and this consumes about two-and-a-half times the amount of water needed to grow wheat or maize.
In August 2022, the government conducted more monitoring campaigns in the markets and decided to punish anyone storing rice to increase its prices with a sentence starting at a year in prison and a fine. This came after a decision earlier in the year to dismiss a plan to put a cap on rice prices for a period of three months after there were further shortages in the market.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt produced 7.3 million tons of rice in 2007-2008, and this declined to 4.4 million tons in 2019-2020. The Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation is working on developing new strains of rice to yield more rice production.
Recently, the ministry organised the harvest of the super rice strains that it has been developing that are early maturing, highly productive, and resistant to water shortages and climate change. The new strains are the Sakha Super 301, the Sakha Super 302, and the Sakha Super 303. The first harvest was in the village of Burik Al-Hajar in the Gharbiya governorate, a ministry press release said.
The Egyptian Rice Programme at the ministry has also partnered with the Japanese Embassy in Cairo and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to establish a laboratory at the Sakha Research Station in Kafr Al-Sheikh and the Sakha Rice Research and Training Centre. Further cooperation will take place to train growers from the African countries in the field of rice development.
Head of the ministry national project for developing and producing hybrid and super rice strains under conditions of water scarcity and climate change Hamdi Al-Mowafi said that “we started developing rice in 2008 from its conventional form to a non-conventional form that would be more resistant to water shortages and climate change. We visited many countries and started to co-operate with China, then the Philippines, and then other countries in Southeast Asia.”
“We were working on changing the rice to endure a scarcity of water and climate change,” he said.
“The hybrid rice will help to increase Egypt’s production. The country reached four tons per feddan when traditional modern types of rice were planted. In the 1970s, rice would need 8,000 to 9,000 cubic metres of water to grow, and there were only two types of rice. If these were infected with diseases, the harvest would be lower (about 2.4 tons per feddan).”
“In 1984, a catastrophe occurred that nearly destroyed the rice harvest when the rice was infected with the Magnaporthe Oryzae disease (Ascomycota). However, we had already started to develop the traditional types of rice and had managed to develop 13 types that we could increase production with from two tons per feddan in the 1970s and 1980s to four tons per feddan in the 1990s and 2000s.”
By using the newly developed seeds farmers were able to decrease water consumption from 6,000 cubic metres to only 5,000 cubic metres.
“We consume 3.2 million tons of white rice per year in Egypt, and now we can grow more than four million tons of white rice. From 2000 to 2010, we used to export rice to more than 64 countries until a decision was made to stop exporting rice on the grounds that rice consumes a lot of water,” Al-Mowafi said.
“At that time, we were working on developing the rice plant so that instead of submerging it in water while growing it, it could be planted just like any other plant with less water.”
This was a global trend followed in cooperation with China and the Philippines among other countries in Southeast Asia.
OBJECTIVES: Specific objectives that are expected to be achieved in the current project include developing, improving, and registering high-yielding Egyptian super hybrids that save water, have low fertiliser requirements, and are tolerant to environmental conditions.
This will help to reduce the area devoted to rice while increasing crop productivity, maintaining a high rate of self-sufficiency, producing a larger quantity of seeds and varieties of hybrid rice and super hybrid rice, training young researchers in rice varieties, and reusing rice waste by producing products of high nutritional value for humans and animals, a ministry report said.
“We were able to use genes from super rice in Egyptian rice and to produce advanced Egyptian rice strains. The normal type of rice has 120 to 150 grains per spike, but the super rice contains more than 1,000 grains per spike,” Al-Mowafi said, adding that in 2008 work had begun to develop the plants at the Scientific Research Academy.
“We started working on a project to develop the super rice and the hybrid rice to endure water scarcity and harsh weather conditions. We were able to develop a type of Egyptian super rice that was awarded the International Geneva Prize for Innovation. The production of this type of rice increased the harvest from four tons per feddan to five tons per feddan. We were also able to save more water during the growing process, going from 5,000 cubic metres to 4,000 cubic metres, or about a third of the amount of water more regularly used,” he added.
Al-Mowafi said that 160 acres of Sakha Super 301 rice has been planted by the Central Administration for Seed Production. Twenty-six acres were planted as part of the national project to develop and produce hybrid and super rice under conditions of water scarcity and climate change. The total seed production expected is 744 tons, enough to plant 12,500 acres in the 2024 season.
An area of 20 acres of Sakha Super 302 rice was also cultivated as part of the national project to develop and produce hybrid and super rice under conditions of water scarcity and climate change. Al-Mowafi expects that total production will reach 80 tons of seeds, enough to plant 1,400 acres in the 2024 season.
An area of 15 acres of Sakha Super 303 rice was also cultivated, and here total seed production is expected to reach 60 tons, enough to plant 1,000 acres in the 2024 season. The total number of seeds from super rice varieties for the 2024 season through the national project, the Rice Research Department, various companies, and the Central Administration for Seed Production is 8,084 tons, enough to plant 135,000 acres.
According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Super Rice Report 2023, rice varieties grown in Egypt are of two types. The first type is made up of traditional Egyptian short-grain Japanese-style varieties like Giza 177, Sakha 101, Sakha 104, Sakha 106, Sakha 107 and Sakha 108, as well as Indian/Japanese short-grain varieties like Giza 178 and Giza 179, or Indian long-grain varieties such as Giza 182. The second type includes non-traditional Egyptian varieties, among them high-yielding hybrid varieties like EHR1 and SK2151H.
According to Al-Mowafi, Japonica is a type of rice co-developed with Japan. This has existed in Egypt since 1917, where it is called Trunk 171 and Trunk 172 and is also called traditional rice. This is a Japanese style of Egyptian rice, with the rice being Egyptian, but its form being Japanese.
“Japan was interested in co-operating with us to train Africans in the field of developing rice strains. We signed an agreement with the Japanese in 2008 and 2010 to train them,” Al-Mowafi said.
“We have harvested the modern super types in the Gharbeya Governorate, among them Sakha Super 301, Sakha Super 302, and Sakha Super 303. These are pre-maturing types of rice that stay only 115 days in the soil and produce an average of 405 rice grains per spike instead of 150. The total harvest can yield five tons per feddan instead of four. This could bring about a complete change in the rice harvest in Egypt,” he said.
“It will guarantee that even with the smallest amount of land we can ensure that Egypt has self-sufficiency in rice production,” he added, saying that more than 50 per cent of the rice planted in Egypt is a previously developed version of the Sakha super type. The super types are the ones that are now used the most as they yield more rice and at the same time can endure water scarcity and the salinity of water.
“We usually plant rice in six governorates, among them Kafr Al-Sheikh, Daqahliya, Sharqiya, Gharbiya, Damietta, Beheira, Port Said, Ismailia, and Alexandria,” he said, adding that they are now able to plant more rice in areas like the sides of canals and in soil that has more salinity in it thanks to the developed versions of the super Sakha rice.
BASMATI: They are also working on an Egyptian version of Basmati rice so that Egypt can be self-sufficient in this type of rice as well.
“We were able to register the first Egyptian Basmati type of rice instead of importing it. We import rice worth $200 million, but this is the first time we have produced Basmati rice in Egypt that can compete with Pakistani and Indian rice,” Al-Mowafi said.
“We registered the first type as Giza Basmati 201, which produces an average of four tons per feddan in comparison to the Indian or Pakistani types that produce no more than two tons per feddan.” He said that they are also developing another Egyptian Basmati type, Hybrid Basmati 11, that will compete with other Basmati types in other countries and produces six tons per feddan.
“If we increase the land on which rice is planted to another 100,000 feddans to make a total of 1.8 million feddans, we could end imports of rice,” Al-Mowafi commented.
“A new strain of Egyptian rice that uses less water and yields more rice would be excellent of course,” commented head of the Rice Chamber at the Federation of Egyptian Industries Ragab Shehata. This increase in production would guarantee that more rice mills can operate.
“When production increases, it means more white rice. The Sakha 300 variety was good for the first two years, but it does not yield the amounts that we aspired to anymore, unfortunately. It neither yields that much barley rice nor that much white rice. The better the strain, the more barley rice that is produced and the more white rice that is produced,” Shehata said.
“Of course, we will use the new rice varieties that are being developed. We want to see better seeds,” he added.
“We face problems like the fact that some farmers tend to store their rice and some merchants abuse their position. There is also the problem of low-yielding rice strains. The ministry is trying to solve such problems by developing new super strains like Sakha Super 301, 302, and 303. But we have not yet seen the results as the strains have not been widely used yet,” he said.
According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture on the national project for developing rice, hybrid rice, super rice, and Basmati rice, the idea is to advance the production and marketing of hybrid rice and to develop and produce hybrid and super rice that can flourish under conditions of water scarcity and climate change as part of Egypt’s 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy.
Rice is a strategic crop in Egypt, and there are great hopes of solving the problem of food shortages by achieving self-sufficiency in food of this sort and providing a surplus for export.
Rice is currently grown on an area of 1.5 million acres, and a decision was issued by the Ministry to reduce that to 724,200 feddans in 2018 and to fine those who violate the decision. Another decision was issued in 2020 to specify the same area in addition to 200,000 feddans at the ends of canals and 150,000 feddans of rice that can withstand a lack of irrigation water.
Rice cultivation in the Delta governorates, especially in areas affected by soil salinity, is indispensable to prevent the encroachment of sea water into the Delta, making rice a method of land reclamation as well as a food crop.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly