Egyptian farmer (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
Double-digit inflation and less-guaranteed availability of foodstuff to Egyptians have been an increasing concern over the past several years in particular.
In 2010, Egypt’s agricultural minister announced that thr country was importing 40 per cent of its total food stock, and particularly 60 per cent of its total wheat consumption — a critical crop for many Egyptians, with Egypt being the world’s leading importer of the crop at more than 10 million tons of wheat annually, according to a recent report.
Large annual population growth adds more strain on Egypt to its feed citizens, many of whom are still significantly dependent on food subsidies and government coupons. In 2010 alone, Egypt increased bread subsidies from LE9 billion to LE21 billion while banning rice exports so as to feed a growing population.
2011 in particular was difficult on Egyptian homes as a result both of the aftermath of the revolution and international inflation in the price of food items that left many Egyptians — who spend a reported 38.1 per cent of their income on food — financially strained. The UN's Food And Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Food Price Index peaked at 238 points in February of 2011, compared to 213 in July 2012 - which, however, was up 6 per cent from June.
With most of Egypt desert land, significant areas of the country’s nearly three per cent of arable land is being used for construction, or suffering from the erosion of its soil for use for in making construction bricks. Furthermore, global production of food is not rising at the same speed as population increases, and oil prices are expected to ascend, all of which put even more pressure on food security in Egypt. Also, there are concerns regarding the potential effects of a current severe drought in the US on international prices of wheat and corn.
However, a recent statement by a government official claimed that the rise in this year’s domestic wheat harvests could shield Egypt from much of that impact, due to requiring 20 per cent less imports than usual.
Egypt, including its private sector, has been taking some steps to deal with food scarcity, including using land in Sudan to plant crops and raise cattle and livestock for commercial consumption. But with Sudan’s current political climate and Egypt being pushed into a potentially delicate diplomatic challenge, the fate of these strategic agricultural moves may not be as certain as once thought, and alternatives need to be ready.
The country's new Agricultural Minister, Salah Abdel-Momen, has also announced a large-scale land reclamation initiative, aiming at adding 1 million feddans (1 feddan= 1.038 acres) over five years. The project will be divided over five equal areas of 200,000 feddans each, with each area set to become home for around one million people. But while the initiative's funding of $10 billion would be entirely sourced from outside of the state budget, according to Abdel-Momen, some remain critical of the entire effort.
One major reason for criticism is that previous land reclamation projects in Egypt had proven to be largely disastrous. The Toshka project in particular, launched in 1997 to great state propaganda, was set to create 540,000 feddans within ten years of its inception, and eventually 3.4 million feddans by 2017. Thus far, and after billions in expenditure, less than 50,000 feddans have been reclaimed.
An alternative path is to work on boosting the productivity of the existing arable land, said to be 8.6 million feddans according to an official figure. One example: according to figures published by Ahram Online, average wheat production (which is Egypt's most critical crop) stands at 2700 kg per feddan, while the yield could reach 3600 kg if the agricultural process is improved.
Food inflation in July stood at around 8.1 per cent in July, down from 10.8 per cent in May, according to state figures.
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