Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2008
Issue No. 919
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egypt and food security

Egypt is well positioned to weather the global food crisis if urgent action is taken, writes Paul Weber and John Harris

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The domestic supply of food in Egypt is undergoing a crisis of dangerous proportions. This crisis, caused by a combination of international and domestic factors, threatens Egypt's economy, social fabric, and domestic politics.

The food crisis in Egypt, as in many other countries, has been caused by a "perfect storm" of price increases in food and fuel markets. The Egyptian crisis, perhaps the worst since the 1977 bread riots, is the result of two complementary shocks: the end of cheap food and the end of cheap transport. This piece outlines the contours of the domestic food crisis, tracing its international and domestic roots, and explores some of its implications for Egypt's agricultural sector.

The reality

Empirical evidence of the food crisis is all around us, has been well reported in the press, and is painfully obvious during every trip to the local store. The price of a kilogram of tomatoes, a basic foodstuff in the Egyptian diet, is up nearly eight times over the past year. Lentils and milk are up nearly four times while the price of cooking oil has tripled. Cereals and bread are up 48 per cent, and foodstuffs as a whole have risen by 24 per cent. The price of a tonne of rice, another staple in the Egyptian diet, has risen from LE1200 to LE2200, a rise of 83 per cent. To counter this alarming trend, the Egyptian government has taken dramatic steps, including increasing the annual bread subsidy from $3.6 to $6 billion, and restricting or eliminating the export of rice.

Egypt, to be sure, is not alone. Globally, food prices have increased 73 per cent since 2006. During the same period the price of edible oils has increased by 144 per cent, and cereals, including wheat and rice, have increased 129 per cent. Egypt, however, is particularly vulnerable and poorly positioned to cope with the consequences of the global crisis. The government, with many resource demands on its limited budget, is reluctant to continue subsidising food imports at levels required to stabilise prices. Salaries, already low, are being outpaced by inflation, making foodstuffs that were expensive last year unaffordable today. Indeed, the food crisis is just one component of a general inflationary environment that saw increases in the cost of cigarettes, diesel and petrol, items relied upon by low-income Egyptians and whose prices were considered inviolable two years ago.

It is easy to theorise about the background and potential causes of the situation. The consequences, however, are altogether too real. The fragility of the situation was clearly shown by recent events following the scarcity of subsidised bread. Much more in the same vein can be expected unless the ability of Egypt's food system to cope with the aftershocks of the global food crisis is urgently addressed.

The causes

The causes of the food crisis are many: some factors are domestic and others interconnected to the globalised food production system. Global factors affect Egypt passively, though with serious consequences, mainly through the increased price and scarcity of agricultural commodities in global markets. Domestic factors are unique to Egypt and carry profound implications.

In terms of global factors, we can note the following:

1. Biofuels as an oil replacement. The global search for an alternate fuel to oil has had a dramatic impact on the global food production industry. The possibility of producing bio- diesel from rapeseed or canola or other oil crops, or producing ethanol from wheat and corn, has resulted in emptying huge world grain reserves. Furthermore, demand for energy crops lead to reversing the trend of reducing the intensity of land use, such as leaving fallow portions of arable land. From 2008 on, very little land will be left fallow since stocks are depleted and demand for agrarian produce is booming. Record prices have currently been recorded for wheat, maize and rice, with the price of wheat tripling over the past 10 months.

2. Climate change. Many significant agrarian producers around the world, such as Australia, have seen their agricultural output compromised due to issues related to climate change, a global trend of unpredictability in rainfall and temperature and increasing cycles of drought and flood. The total number of recorded worldwide weather related disasters is now 400-500, up from 125 in the 1980s. As a result, significant shocks are sent through global agricultural markets, increasing prices and supply unpredictability. Increasing water scarcity is mostly felt in the traditionally arid countries between Morocco in the west and Iraq in the east. Few of these countries have more than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water resources available per capita per year. Since food production in arid countries depends on irrigation, this amount of water is the lower limit for producing enough food for the population. As an example, in order to feed its population of almost 80 million, Egypt disposes of approximately 60 billion cubic metres of fresh water and hence has to import food that is equivalent, if it were grown locally, to nearly 20 billion cubic metres of irrigation water.

3. Rising transportation costs. The global increase in the price of oil, which over the past year has risen to record levels, has tremendous adverse consequences on global food markets. Oil price increases drive up the cost of food along the entire food chain, from production to the costs of fertiliser, to diesel for planting and harvesting, and fuel for transportation. Some much needed rationalisation has been introduced in the system, ending, for example, the extraordinary situation in which fish caught and consumed in Scandinavia was being prepared and packaged in China. However, the increased cost of oil also makes agricultural produce an enticing oil replacement, and increased oil prices have a direct upward implication on the global costs of food. In many ways, this is the end of the era of cheap food. It seems a new, more expensive reality is here to stay.

4. Rising global income levels. The economic boom, especially in Asia, and the rising revenues of oil exporting countries have caused a dramatic change in domestic food consumption. China, for example, has doubled its consumption of meat, fish and dairy products since 1990. Likewise, it has moved from being one of the largest exporters of maize to a significant importer of maize. These trends remove considerable agricultural supply from global markets and increase competition for the remainder.

5. Changes to the global agricultural commodities market. These factors, in addition to a host of domestic factors, have resulted in a series of alterations in the global market for agricultural produce. As countries have tried to protect domestic production, several agricultural producers have restricted or banned certain exports. Export restrictions in countries like China, India, Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, have tightened global food supply and driven up prices elsewhere. Egypt too experimented with trade protectionism, banning rice exports from April through October of this year. Similarly, food aid is down as a development agency priority, lessening the purchasing power of developing countries in agricultural produce. Likewise, global food reserves are at their lowest point in the last 25 years, resulting in little ability to cushion food price fluctuations and leaving the market susceptible to price spikes and speculation.

The factors listed above affect Egypt's domestic situation due to the tightening of supplies in the global food market and the increased prices of agricultural produce. A series of strictly domestic factors further exacerbate the situation. These include:

1. Population increase. Egypt's population of over 80 million is growing at annual rate of around two per cent, leading to projections of over 120 million by the year 2050. A new child is born in Egypt every 23 seconds, where the population has more than doubled in last 30 years. One-third of Egyptians are under 15 years old, meaning that the population bubble will be felt long into the next generation.

Population growth is by no means unique to Egypt: the UN predicts a world population increase from 6.5 billion to over nine billion by 2050. Every year, world population swells by about 80 million people, equivalent to the population of Egypt. But in Egypt, because of its limited resources of fresh water and fertile land, the impact is particularly acute. For example, Egypt currently imports over half of its annual demand of 14 million tons of wheat. Egyptians, on average, consume a spectacular 180 kilograms of wheat per person per year (in India and in Germany, for example, the figure is closer to 70 kilograms).

Continuing to satisfy such a high demand for wheat of a rapidly expanding population will continue to tax Egypt's import capabilities. Substantial increases of local wheat production are possible only at the expense of areas dedicated to growing animal fodder, thus widening the already important deficit in local meat production and other animal products.

2. Urban encroachment on agricultural land. Comparing current satellite images of Cairo with comparable images from the 1970s illustrates the challenges faced by Egyptian agriculture. In recent years, vast tracts of fertile agricultural land have been lost to ever-expanding housing and infrastructure developments. The city has expanded too rapidly, compromised by absent or inadequate planning, and in the process has destroyed its own food base. Some 45,000 feddans are lost in Egypt annually to urban encroachment. This problem is not limited to Egypt. Since 1976, 10.5 million hectares have been lost to urban encroachment worldwide. This is equivalent to the entire wheat cropping area of Canada, the world's sixth-largest producer of wheat, or to about four times the entire cultivated area of Egypt.

But the problem for Egypt is made particularly acute by the tendency for urban encroachment to take place on the most fertile agricultural land near the Nile River, which are the easiest to irrigate from the river. "Old lands", the traditional agricultural lands in the Nile Valley and Delta regions, are twice as fertile as "new lands", newly reclaimed lands on sandy soils. Desert soil has neither the storage capacity for water nor for plant nutrients to make it even remotely comparable in productivity to the deep alluvial clay soils in the Nile Valley and the Delta. Desert soil is much more expensive to irrigate and to cultivate, and to compensate for the loss of one feddan of old land, at least two feddans of new land must be reclaimed.

3. Changing domestic dietary habits. Egypt, too, has an expanding middle class, the benefits of economic liberalisation and a growing economy. As people upgrade in economic status, their dietary preferences change accordingly. Generally, one of the effects of expanded economic purchasing power is an increase in the amount of animal protein in the diet -- particularly beef. Producing beef meat is notoriously land and water inefficient. For example, it requires 20 square metres of agricultural land to raise one kilogram of beef. This is 40 times the land required to grow one kilogram of fruits, and 100 times the amount of land required to grow one kilogram of potatoes. Likewise, it requires about 15,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of beef, compared with 900 litres for a kilogram of potatoes, or a similar amount for a kilogram of wheat. Other forms of animal protein, like goat or chicken, rate better than beef does but still considerably worse than the traditional Egyptian diet consisting of beans, cereals and vegetables. Thus, the effect of a growing middle class threatens to dramatically alter Egypt's land and water use.

4. Growing attractiveness of agricultural exports. The dramatic increases in global prices for agricultural commodities, along with the increasing liberalisation of Egyptian import and export procedures, has made it easier for Egyptian producers to sell to foreign markets. Thus, traders are increasingly able to sell Egyptian products to the highest bidder globally rather than at lower rates domestically. Last year, for example, Egypt produced 6.5 million tons of rice, which in theory should have been more than sufficient for the domestic demand of three million tons. However, shortages were common, meaning that many traders were able to access foreign markets where a higher price could be obtained. Such exposure to market forces means that Egyptian producers can charge Egyptian buyers more in line with international prices. A proportion of the resultant price hike is borne by Egyptian consumers.

5. The limitation of agricultural subsidies. The current Egyptian government seems committed to scaling back agricultural subsidies, even as they increase subsidies for some consumers. For example, the price of a sack of fertiliser has increased recently from LE30 to LE161. Likewise, the price of diesel -- a critical input during production, harvesting and processing -- has considerably increased. The resulting price increase of agricultural commodities is borne in large part by consumers. The government aims to offset these general increases by targeted subsidies to needy Egyptian consumers, but these efforts have yet to gather steam.

The implications

The combination of these global and domestic factors has the potential to radically alter Egyptian agricultural production. Potential implications of the food crisis on Egypt's agricultural sector include:

1. A greater emphasis on agricultural self-sufficiency. In many countries, agricultural self-sufficiency had been a largely discredited during the era of faith in free-market economics and globalised trade. The food crisis is forcing countries to rethink their positions on the subject of agricultural self-sufficiency and to support efforts to increase levels of domestic production. The Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, for example, recently announced the aim of attaining 65 per cent self-sufficiency in the production of wheat by the next season. Land reclamation initiatives like Al-Salam Canal and Toshka may move from the fringes of future planning into the mainstream of government (and even donor) policy. Egypt has become the world's largest wheat importer, importing over seven million tons annually. Domestic production of "strategic" crops like wheat could therefore be given a much higher priority.

2. Greater emphasis on cropping intensity. Supporting the aim of greater agricultural self-sufficiency with limited potential to put new land under cultivation means that cropping intensity on already cultivated land needs to be increased. Greater research and policy emphasis could therefore be placed on efforts to emphasise higher yield strains of existing crops, and on finding ways to optimise the cropping calendar. For example, the government is currently pursuing initiatives to increase average annual productivity of wheat from 2160 to 2640 kilograms per feddan, a 23 per cent increase in productivity.

This process will be complex and adverse consequences will need to be dealt with, particularly the rise of the ground water table in the Nile Valley and the Delta region, followed by an increasing salinity of the soil, and a higher load of pesticides and chemical fertiliser in drainage water, which may seriously hamper the potential for re-using drainage water and for expanding irrigation into newly reclaimed desert lands. Advisory support for farmers as well as important investment in drainage and water treatment facilities will be necessary in order to mitigate the adverse consequences of increasing cropping intensity.

3. New prestige and relevance for agricultural support programmes. Until recently, those supporting Egyptian agricultural production, and the protection of land and water supplies that this requires, found themselves on the losing side of a debate against land speculators and industrial entrepreneurs seeking greater water and land allocations. Proponents of agricultural production no longer fear losing this debate. Priority in increasing agricultural productivity will be given to the use of "old lands", more efficient by a factor of two to "new lands", and will require the assistance of dedicated and experienced professionals to help guide farmers through the changing landscape of agricultural production. Such a programme, to cite just one example, is the German funded "Agricultural Water Management Project" attached to the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.

4. Better targeting of sector subsidies. Subsidies regarding inputs to agricultural production, including fuel, electricity, water and fertiliser, is a complex and highly political subject the world over. For example, the EU and the US have been unable to wean their farmers off generous government subsidies supporting domestic agricultural production. However, the domestic food crisis in Egypt may provide renewed impetus to efforts to scale back or target more effectively government subsidies concerning inputs to agricultural production. Already, diesel and fertiliser prices have increased significantly. It is possible to imagine a scenario in which agricultural services and the provision of better irrigation facilities also attracts additional fees. In the same light, increased tariffs on agricultural exports may be levied in order to promote domestic consumption.

5. Increasing problems of adequate nutrition for all Egyptian families. Some 14 million Egyptians currently live on less than $1 per day. At the same time, inflation rates remain high with national wage averages unable to keep pace. The result is more Egyptian families less able to afford adequate nutrition. The potential for consequent social unrest was demonstrated by recent events following restricted availability of subsidised bread in Egypt, and by food riots in Indonesia, Haiti, Bangladesh and various parts of Africa.

6. Need for cooperation with Sudan and other southern Nile riparians. Cooperation between the countries of the Nile basin is ongoing, but the food crisis gives the dialogue a greater sense of urgency. There is growing discussion of increasing agricultural produce in Sudan and in Uganda with Egyptian manpower and knowledge and investment, bound for Egyptian markets. The food crisis will promote these discussions and will give greater weight in policy discussions to those in government who promote these schemes.


It is too early to tell the true consequences of the global food crisis. Technical advances may soften its eventual impact on certain countries. Other countries will face challenges greater and more complex than could have been foreseen. What is sure, however, is that those countries that are able to diminish the negative impacts of the crisis through alterations to domestic food production patterns will be much better equipped to ride out the storm than those at the mercy of international markets.

In this regard, Egypt is well positioned. Egypt's land, water and technical resources are well equipped to step up and address the challenges presented by the food crisis. What is required is the protection of Egypt's agricultural land and water resources from further compromises, the empowerment of farmers to ride out the challenges presented by the crisis, and commitment on the behalf of policymakers to ensure the adequacy of domestic food production.

Paul Weber is GTZ senior advisor in irrigation agronomy and head of the Agricultural Water Management Project with the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, Egypt. John Harris is a water policy specialist and advisor to the Agricultural Water Management Project.

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