Persistent hikes in food prices have taken fresh produce and meat costs to new heights, continuing an endless nightmare for consumers. Mona El-Fiqi
The past few months have witnessed a series of unprecedented food price increases. Although the hikes are product of developments in the local and international markets, consumers from both low and middle income brackets are the ones paying the price.
"With every visit to the supermarket, I expect to find an increase in prices of certain food products. This situation is not new for me, but it's still too much to bear. For now I am able to cover my family's needs, but if prices continue to rise this way I will no longer be able to afford such high food bills," said Aliaa Ahmed, the wife of a well-off engineer.
For low and middle-income families, the situation is even worse. "When meat prices rose from LE45 to LE80 per kilo, we stopped eating meat altogether. But what shall I feed my children if even vegetables and tomatoes are becoming unaffordable?" said Ghada Mahmoud, a housekeeper who has three children. Mahmoud explained that ever since vegetables prices have risen, she has had to cut the quantities of food she used to buy by half. "What else can I do?" she added.
Since the start of 2010, the prices of several food commodities have increased. Among the items that are becoming more and more costly are basic goods such as meat, rice, poultry, sugar, wheat and cooking oil. The reason behind the increase is a rise in international prices of items such as wheat and sugar, while prices of other items such as meat and poultry rose due to a clear gap between local production and consumption.
Meanwhile, consumers have over recent weeks been hit with an unprecedented increase in vegetable and fruit prices, reaching LE10 for a kilo of tomatoes while green beans are sold at LE16 per kilo and apples at LE15.
According to experts, the main reason behind this hike in vegetable and fruit prices is a shortage of supply resulting from a long hot summer which damaged the harvests of many crops. Nader Noureddin, professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University, said that due to high temperatures, the productivity of a feddan of tomatoes has fallen from an average of 50 tonnes to just five. Results included a drop in supply during two simultaneous seasons characterised by high demand, namely the holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of a new school year.
Experts have also blamed the government for not taking action to help farmers reduce their losses. Noureddin said that changes in weather patterns are forecast five days in advance, giving Ministry of Agriculture officials enough time to inform farmers of steps to take during such emergencies and to help minimise damages to the harvest. "If the agricultural advisors at the ministry had done their homework in time, losses would have been cut by 75 per cent," Noureddin added. The professor also believes that the government should consider increasing the currently minimal budget the Ministry of Agriculture allocates for scientific research.
Meanwhile, head of the Agricultural Production Committee at the Shura Council Hussein Mohamed Hegazi agreed that the Ministry of Agriculture is to blame for high vegetable and fruit prices, though for different reasons. Hegazi explained that the high prices of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers discourage farmers from cultivating vegetables to begin with.
According to Hegazi, the ministry should provide seeds and fertilisers at reasonable prices to encourage farmers to grow vegetables. He went on to say that farmers themselves have not benefited from price hikes, but rather that it is the middlemen who purchase harvests from farmers and wholesalers who end up making large profits in such situations.
Further, Hegazi said the government should reconsider its policy towards the agricultural sector. "It is better to subsidise farmers to help increase the cultivated lands and raise productivity, than to depend on imports," he said, adding that this is particularly important for strategic crops. "The ministry should make a plan to determine which areas are to be cultivated with what product, depending on the types of land and product consumption," Hegazi added.
On the whole, experts are dissatisfied with the marketing process of vegetables and fruits, whose poor organisation is causing price hikes. Hegazi said the government should allow agricultural cooperatives to play an active role in marketing the harvest, and meanwhile limit the role played by the private sector, if it wishes to minimise shelf prices for the benefit of consumers.
Experts also recommend boosting investments in the agricultural sector, to help increase production and cut prices. Hegazi believes the government should provide incentives to investors to start up new agricultural projects. It should also establish cattle farms to raise meat production, given that meat prices are rapidly rising.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, butcher Adbullah Ali said he has had to raise the cost of meat at his store as he is currently purchasing cows and buffaloes at high prices. "I used to buy a cow at LE6,000 to LE7,000 but now the price is between LE10,000 and LE15,000," he said. "Consumers refuse to buy meat at high prices. We are facing a clear state of recession," Ali added.
In an attempt to reduce meat and poultry prices which, according to the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), have each risen by 40 and 25 per cent respectively in 2010, the CBE decided on 2 October to exclude meat and poultry importers from having to provide a cash cover in banks for their imports. Officials said they hope that by reducing the cost of financing for importers, the decision will ultimately result in reducing meat and poultry prices for consumers.