Climate change is testing the ability of many countries to produce crops of the desired quality and quantity, and last year there were fears in Egypt that the 10-day storm that hit the country would harm the wheat harvest that was due to be collected a few days later.
However, the damage was minimal thanks to the planting of wheat able to resist climate change, said Salah Abdel-Meguid, head of the National Committee for Wheat Improvement, adding that the harvest had been even better than planned.
The country’s farmers were expected to produce 9.2 million tons of wheat last year, but the harvest exceeded expectations, and this year’s wheat harvest is expected to yield 10.5 million tons.
Part of the reason behind the bumper harvest lies with the resistant seeds, but another reason is the fact that 1.2 million feddans (one feddan is around 1.1 acres), or about 30 per cent, of home-grown wheat is planted on agricultural terraces, a system which protects the harvest against storms and reduces the consumption of water and fertilisers by 25 per cent.
An additional factor is that agencies affiliated to the Armed Forces have reclaimed land in East Owainat, enabling plots to produce more yield, with approximately 22 ardab of wheat being produced per feddan of land, Abdel-Meguid said (one ardab is around 0.5 kg).
The extra productivity was the result of cooperation between the Armed Forces and the National Centre for Agricultural Research, he said.
The recent wave of bad weather led the Farmers Syndicate to issue a warning to farmers in areas of heavy rainfall, advising them to drain off excess water quickly to reduce moisture and avoid infection from yellow rust.
Abdel-Meguid said the syndicate’s move had targeted Lower Egypt, where the rainfall had been heaviest, since 35 per cent of Egypt’s wheat is planted in the Kafr Al-Sheikh, Sharqiya, Beheira, and Daqahliya governorates.
Hussein Abu Saddam, head of the Farmers Syndicate, praised the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to raise the price of the wheat it buys from farmers to LE820 per ardab. He added that the increase of LE95 on the price paid in 2021 was “satisfactory” for farmers.
Abdel-Meguid said the price increase had been well timed because it had encouraged farmers to increase the amount of land planted with wheat. According to the ministry, 3.5 million feddans of land were planted with wheat this year, up from 3.4 million feddans a year earlier, with an average production of 22 ardab per feddan.
Abu Saddam said the government was making available 22 kinds of wheat seed of high quality and able to resist climate change and to increase homegrown wheat production. The completion of the wheat silos project that increased the storage capacity of each silo to five million tons also played a role in last year’s success.
However, there is still a need to increase the amount of land planted with wheat to five million feddans before self-sufficiency can be achieved. The total planted area in Egypt averages a little over 14 million feddans.
Egypt is the leading importer of wheat globally at 10 million tons a year, according to statements by Ali Moselhi, the minister of supply and internal trade. The ministry imports 60 per cent of this, while the private sector imports the remaining 40 per cent.
The majority of Egypt’s wheat imports come from Russia, Romania, and Ukraine via the Black Sea and landing in Alexandria. Three months ago, France started offering wheat that was cheaper than Russian wheat but that had additional freight fees.
In October, Egypt announced an international tender to buy large amounts of wheat before December 2021, a standard measure adopted to hedge for any sudden international rise in the price of wheat.
Noemani Nasr, an advisor to the Ministry of Supply, said on Sunday that “the strategic reserve of wheat is enough for more than six months as a result of the expected arrival in March of the new shipment contracted by the Supply Commodities Authority and estimated at 420,000 tons of Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, and French wheat.”
He added that the strategic reserve would increase further once the ministry had received the homegrown wheat from farmers. Local and imported wheat are mixed together and used for local consumption, with the local wheat being famous for its quality, Nasr said.
This gives the government space to manoeuvre and negotiate international wheat prices, which are expected to rise on the back of several reasons including the standoff between Ukraine and Russia, both of which, along with Romania, represent 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and barley share.
In addition, there is a hike in international prices because of a global inflationary wave. Moreover, Russia announced early in January its intention to impose a $60 fee on each ton of wheat exports starting in March. This will push up the price of Russian wheat by 25 per cent.
The expected wheat price hike globally was behind the Ministry of Finance’s decision in mid-January 2022 to allocate LE12 billion to covering the cost of wheat imports.
These are the same reasons that prompted the government to announce measures placing tighter control on the distribution of subsidised baladi bread. The measures are intended to rationalise the consumption of baladi bread, as every reduction in the quantities of flour directed to subsidised bread, no matter how small, eases the burden on the import bill or extends the period of coverage of the strategic wheat reserves.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.