Do you remember Egyptian cotton being the pride of Egypt all over the world? Do you remember the tall sugar cane swaying in the wind for miles on end in Upper Egypt, a major source of sugar and other foodstuffs? Do you remember strawberries? I don’t mean the generic, tasteless strawberries wrapped in cellophane on supermarkets shelves, which look like the artificial fruits that used to decorate dining rooms in our grandmothers’ homes. I mean the old Egyptian strawberries with their sweet taste and strong scent, which would fill the house so thoroughly I could always tell what dessert would be.
Where did those strawberries go? How did local bananas, the tastiest in the world, become such a rarity, to be seen only very occasionally on hand-drawn carts coming from the countryside surrounding Cairo? And when were the old Egyptian tomatoes driven out of the market by exported strains with thick skin and mediocre taste?
The Egyptian crop map has changed significantly in the last decades in ways that have transformed the shape, taste and availability of agricultural products. Part of the blame for this is ours and another part outside our control. The most important factor is climate change, which has swept the world due to industrial progress, together with all manner of pollution due to nuclear tests and weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical and biological ones, and the damage we have made to the ozone layer which we are unable to repair.
Agriculture in the region is facing an existential challenge. Arab agricultural output constitutes a little over four percent of world agricultural output. However, it is vital to us. Over the few past years, many studies sent alarming signals pointing to a bleak future awaiting agriculture, not only in Egypt but in the entire Middle East. A study made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) showed that the Arab world is suffering from an extended drought exceeding 20 years, the longest in the last millennium.
At the same time, the UNDP warned that continued water scarcity could result in a decrease of about 20 per cent in agriculture in the Arab region by 2080. As for the World Bank, it mentioned in a study conducted in 2017 that climate change will lead to water scarcity, which will result in losses in the gross domestic product in the region’s countries ranging between six per cent and 14 per cent by 2050. The Arab world is already importing 80 per cent of its food needs. Would that figure reach 100 if agricultural land shrunk in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and the Maghreb?
Through the centuries, agriculture was the mainstay of Egypt’s national economy and Egypt used to be described as the granary of Rome when it was under Roman rule. But, together with our negligence towards such special crops as cotton, rice and fruits, some of which used to yield considerable sums of foreign currency, climate change has taken its toll. The rise in temperature in Egypt has caused the spread of the fall armyworm, which attacked last year, damaging much of the maize crop in Upper Egypt. This rise has also caused a 70 per cent drop in the olive yield.
Agriculture has often become an unprofitable profession. Under these conditions, many farmers decided to leave agriculture and find another profession instead. That is why the government’s projects that are now being executed in order to benefit from ground water, recycling sewage and agricultural drainage and using them for all purposes other than drinking – as per the recommendations of international institutions – are important. Non-governmental desert agricultural projects, that depend on drip irrigation and recycled water and work on extracting different organic strains of vegetables and fruits, have become widespread. Some of those farm owners are trying to go back to the original Egyptian strains that for so long made our fruits and vegetables the tastiest in the world. Who knows, maybe our grandsons, on their return from school to their homes, will be able to tell they are having strawberries for dessert.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.