Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

From the field to the table

Putting food on the table is in many ways becoming a challenge, for the state as well as for individuals, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The visit by President Mohamed Morsi to a wheat field last week to celebrate the harvest season of this crucial crop for the Egyptian food basket, amid promises of a considerable increase in productivity that could make up for otherwise considerable wheat imports, prompted an extended debate in many economic, political and for that matter public forums about the food issue.
The wheat field visit came right after a presidential visit to Brazil whereby the president inspected opportunities for transformation of agricultural expertise from this South America country that has a brand name level in agricultural management and a considerable potential for meat exports — a key item on the food list. It also came against the backdrop of a series of food related stories, which mostly call for worry rather than comfort over the ever illusive food security issue in Egypt: the decision by Australia to suspend exports of cattle to Egypt over alleged poor abattoir regulations and practices; a considerable waste of wheat harvest due to insufficient and poorly-set storages; alarming figures in loss of good quality Delta agricultural land for unplanned urbanisation; reports of police confiscation of shipments of bad food; and predictions of an unexpected population growth.
For many, however, the top story is much more basic: food prices have been rising over and over.

FOOD BILL: “It is insupportable; it is really insupportable,” said Tayseer, a housewife in her late 50s while doing her shopping at a local market in Midan Al-Gamiaa in the residential neighbourhood of Heliopolis.
Wife to a civil servant and mother of four children, all university students, Tayseer is finding it very hard to put sufficient and healthy food on the table of her family.
“We have been cutting down on so many spending items including money for private lessons that the children would otherwise prefer to take, plus a cut in their already limited annual clothing budget, yet we don’t know where things are heading to. If things keep getting more expensive it would be very tough,” Tayseer said. She added that her family’s choice of recipes is already quite modest where starch takes prominence over protein, the selection of vegetables is determinedly limited and fruits make one or two appearances per week at the most.
Tayseer’s accounts do not match with the statements coming from official quarters about food sufficiency. They are, however, quite compatible with recent statements coming out of the Cairo office of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cairo that have been warning of growing risks of an already challenged food security situation, given that the annual cost of providing food for all Egyptians would cost the state coffers around $4 billion, a little under the total volume of the loan that Egypt has been trying to close for nine months with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
FAO reminded the public that with the volume of the Egyptian population living under the poverty line moving from around 20 per cent to around 25 per cent and with some other 20 per cent living around the line, food security is becoming an increased challenge, in view of the fact that for an average Egyptian family 40 per cent of the overall income is allocated to cover food, often at the expense of other crucial items including medical care and education opportunities.
With most families’ income expected to be devaluated, due to the simultaneous rise in food commodities and the exchange rate of the US dollar, more and more families are expected by charities to be subject to one form or other of nutrition aid.

FOOD GAP: Although once an essentially agricultural country, Egypt has been during the past few decades — some experts say four while others suggest six — losing considerable agrarian capacity, both in terms of fertile soil and skilled farmers. Black fertile soil was scraped at portions that were never made up for by the uninspiring levels of land reclamation, and trained farmers abandoned agricultural activities in favour of other more profitable options.
Today, Egypt is said to have around eight to nine million feddans, according to most government and independent estimates, which cannot put enough food on the table of its close to 90 million people.
The food gap is associated in the minds of many with wheat as Egypt imports an average of 40 per cent of its annual wheat consumption. The fact is the gap is much wider and covers many other crops — grain, vegetables and fruits. These exports include some of the essential food commodities that are sold at highly subsidised prices through the ration system.
Successive governments before and after the 25 January Revolution have been systematically complaining about a strained food budget due to the large volume of exports and the just as large volume of subsidies, especially for bread, sugar, oil, rice and beans.
Noamani Noamani, counsellor to the minister of supplies, says that his ministry is well aware of the food gap at its two levels: state and individuals. “We are making every effort to expand the umbrella of individuals ineligible for subsidised basic food items,” he said.
Currently, there are over 60 million people who are ineligible for the monthly ration service with an estimated annual cost of around LE8 billion, which is likely to increase due to the reduced value of the pound versus the dollar as part of a wider economic problem that the country is facing.
Noamani is well aware that the challenge for consumers does not stop at the dried foods that his ministry provides. The prices of other food items, which are not subject to any pricing system, are already out of control.

FARMER, WHOLESALE TRADER AND RETAILER: At Obour wholesale market, east Cairo, Ibrahim is endlessly complaining about what he qualifies as “the retailer rip-off”. Ibrahim is arguing that a kilo of vegetables is sold at Obour market at one price, only to be sold at the retailer at triple the price if not more. “I sell a kilo of cucumbers at less than LE1 but it is sold at the markets at close to LE3 and even more at a supermarket,” he said.
A kilo of cucumbers that Ibrahim sells at less than LE1 was sold by the farmer to a wholesale trader for a little over 50 piastres. “It is the retailer who really benefits but as a farmer we are suffering because for us everything has become more expensive — the seeds, the fertiliser and the shipment from the fields to the big wholesale traders,” said Mahmoud who had arrived to Obour with a small shipment of watermelon.
Then again, the complaints go beyond these unfair pricing discrepancies. Despite the “big benefits” that retailers are making, they have not been showing as much interest in fruits as before, said Girgis, a wholesale trader of fruits. “This year, we had to trash whole boxes of strawberries and peaches since they were going bad,” he said.
According to Girgis, the economic crisis is “certainly eating up at families’ budget; all the traders here are having a tough time selling the fruits and vegetables they are buying but it is more so with fruit sellers rather than the merchants of vegetables because ultimately when families have to cut shopping items it would be fruits, and not vegetables,” he added.
The big increase in prices of fruits and vegetables at local markets have prompted some people to actually go straight to wholesale markets, like Obour, to do their shopping. Fadiya and Hanan say they go once a week to buy fruits and vegetables for their homes, those of their parents and parents-in-law. “It does save up some,” said Hanan. “My husband or her husband drives us here and we do our shopping; it takes a couple of hours extra or so but it saves like 50 per cent — even if you take into consideration the car fuel,” she added.
Fadiya has to travel a bit further than Hanan. This late 30s underprivileged lady says that she goes with her husband, an office assistant at a factory in the industrial compound further east to the market of Obour, on the factory bus. She spends her working day going through the market diligently, looking into the heaps of trashed vegetables and fruits in a firm search of a few good oranges here and a few good aubergines there. Eventually, and by the time of her departure to catch the bus and join her husband on his way home, Fadiya would have filled, as she said, about six big plastic bags full of a considerable variety of fruits and vegetables. She allows one for the bus driver who is kind enough to allow her on board in violation of the regulations and uses the other five bags throughout the week to feed herself, her husband and her two young boys. “What can we do?” Fadiya asks. “We were barely making it before and now things are a lot more expensive; it would not be possible otherwise; here we are picking our food from the trash but we have no other choice.”

‘HIDDEN HUNGER’: Senior expert at the Cairo office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Marwan Abi Samra is assessing that more and more people are likely to be suffering tremendously to cover basic healthy eating needs. “Egypt has been hit by recurrent waves of price rises that cannot be rationally explained in view of the fact that at times some prices went way over 100 per cent when the products have neither been so scarce locally nor have been getting even half as expensive at the international level,” he said.
In a situation where prices are endlessly increasing and where incomes are at stalemate and unemployment is on the rise, it is very much expected, said Abi Samra, that more and more people would have to be “hit by hunger”.
With more and more people having to significantly reduce or completely do away with their consumption of meat, poultry and fish and with others eliminating their consumption of fruits and vegetables, Abi Samra argues, they are allowing for what is called “hidden hunger”.
“People are increasingly adopting a very poor diet whereby they depend essentially on subsidised food — bread, rice, macaroni and sweetened tea; the result is poor quality nutrition and poor quality health,” Abi Samra said. He added, “more and more we see Egyptian children who are suffering growing problems; actually according to some estimates some 30 per cent of children under five are suffering from stunting syndromes”.
Maged Amir, a director of one supermarket chain for the rather well-off consumer, said that he recently shut down the meat and poultry section at his supermarket due to declining interest from his clients. “And it is not just this branch; of our over 50 branches in Cairo, 10 have stopped selling fresh meat and chicken and five others are neither selling fresh meat nor the usually less expensive processed and packed meat,” Amir said. He added that the fruit corners at his chain stores have also been reduced significantly.
In a recent article published by development researcher Abdel-Nasser Abdel-Aal, a proposal was made to counter the “inevitable health hazardous” that Egyptians face as they become less able to diversify their nutrition elements and depend heavily on the subsidised food rations that are high in calories. They are not healthy if used out of moderation, and can lead to a wide range of chronic health problems, including widespread craniological ailments and diabetes.
Arguing that people need to eat better and to refrain from overconsumption of a limited selection of nutrition elements, Abdel-Aal suggested that there is a need to reconsider the format of subsidisation, to turn it from the current system of delivered monthly rations of rice, macaroni, sugar, oil and tea to cash in order to allow people to diversify.

‘IT IS THE MONOPOLY’: “No, I disagree with this offer; it would not work because the money that we will get will neither help us diversify our dietary choices nor get the food we are getting now; with the monthly rations we at least have some dry food,” said Ahlam, a housewife in Giza.
What Ahlam would like to see is a coordinated system by which she can sell her monthly ratios “and actually increase them a bit” and whereby she can go to government-controlled markets to buy other food stuffs — vegetables, fruits and chicken, “and I am not suggesting meat”, at good prices “away from the greedy interest-making inclinations of traders”. Alternatively she would like the government to re-introduce the pricing system as it used to be before the introduction of the free market economy dynamics.
According to Counsellor Noamani there is no going back to the state-controlled pricing system. “The government has some bodies that are in charge of consumers’ interests and they help monitor the market and report cases of abuse but that is all done in the context of the free market economy,” he explained.
That said, Noamani acknowledged the need “perhaps” for greater cooperation among the many ministries that work on providing food for the nation: Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Supplies and Ministry of Investment that is in charge of a chain of government-owned supermarkets that offers decent quality food items, fresh and packed alike, at reasonable prices.
The UNDP’s Abi Samra, for his part, argues that the problem is not really related to the free market economy, which he argues is not properly applied in Egypt. “You have a market of controlled economy. Before it was the state that was in control and now it is a limited group of businessmen who are in control; it is the monopoly that is coming between so many people and a healthy meal,” Abi Samra said.
According to Abi Samra, monopoly is taking over the many phases of food production in Egypt — from the field to the table. “This is how Egyptian rice is sold at a much higher price at the local market than at the foreign markets despite the fact that the price of rice on the shelves of a supermarket overseas includes the export expenses,” he explained.
For Abi Samra, the monopoly and its twin practice of corruption are no pre-requisites to the free market economy, just as the IMF loan is not the only exit for this country out of its harsh economic ordeal, the harshest in close to a century, according to some estimates.
“There are other countries who made do without IMF loans, like Indonesia for example. They just acted to restructure their economy and to eliminate corruption; this meant better economic conditions which would inevitably mean higher employment rates and better nutrition and, therefore, higher development,” Abi Samra said. He added, “development is essentially about people; if people cannot find enough food to eat then how would you be talking about development”?
Abi Samra insisted that there is an almost desperate need to reconsider the priorities and cycle of agro-economics and food and fertiliser imports. “Currently there is a literal and not metaphorical failure; this goes beyond the rampant corruption to the systematic loss of agrarian land, the unnecessary overconsumption of water and in fact the inexplicable weakness of agrarian economy,” he argued.
Khaled Hamid, a professor of agrarian economy, is fully in agreement over the need to reconsider the whole cycle of food, from field to the table. “At the small farmer’s level there is always a problem over efficiently covering the cost of farming and making a decent profit, a very tough equation to handle,” Hamid said. He added, “at times when the harvest is finished farmers cannot afford to sell it at a good price because it is too expensive to ship to the big markets so they end up either selling it at a very low price or simply at times leaving it at the fields”.
Egypt, Hamid says for the sake of “one of many examples”, is one of the highest tomato producing countries worldwide but has a very humble “and almost insignificant share” of tomato paste production.
The examples of poor management go way beyond the tomato account. Egypt, according to Osama Kheireddin, of the Ministry of Agriculture, is losing a considerable part of its actual wheat harvest due to bad and insufficient storage techniques, although wheat imports consume a good part of the basic annual food bought every year by the Egyptian government.
“The loss is not only at the level of storage; it comes later at the level of flower production and distribution that allows for the ‘flower mafias’ to put their hands on a good part of the subsidised flower,” Kheireddin said. He added, “then again a considerable part of the subsidised bread is lost to poor consumption habits, including the use of heavily subsidised bread to feed animals which should otherwise be fed with corn, when in fact the wheat-based feeding reduces milk production and the quality of cattle meat”.
The waste, according to Kheireddin, is really wide: crops are planted without geographic consideration in what leads to overconsumption of water and fertilisation with no high productivity secured; choice of planted crops is sometimes designed in line with the agenda of imports when it should be done the other way round; cattle with high reproduction chances are slaughtered or exported at a humble price; fertile soil is turned into construction land while desert is being reclaimed for agriculture at a very high cost of water and fertiliser; irrigation systems are outdated in most cases and farmers are denied proper agrarian counselling and economic support in what compromises their labour and their productivity.
“We need integrated planning; actually we need proper planning to start with; with good planning we could firmly reduce the food bill and provide more food at a wider variety and better quality,” said Kheireddin. He added that ultimately the responsibility of this coordinated and comprehensive planning is not the decision of one ministry but one to be made by all ministries responsible for putting food on the tables of the Egyptian population.

SHORT-TERM ANSWERS: Hamid is proposing the adoption of firm regulations to stop two of the biggest problems: fertile scraping and monopoly either of the fertilisers and seeds or of the crops. He is also advising more efficient state involvement. “Let us take the transportation of crops, for example: why can’t the state provide for transportation at a reasonable cost, especially for the small farmers; the government could also expand the number of its managed supermarkets,” he added.
According to Mona Belal, a student of home economics at the University of Helwan, there should be more food-counselling provided. “Healthy eating could still be a choice for small-income families if they get the right advice. At least this is what they teach us at college,” Belal said. “It could be done through media, schools and civil society,” she added.
The long list of subjects that Belal studies at university, she believes, could help people meet some basic nutrition needs at a very limited budget if they are offered ideas on how to upgrade their eating habits and choices of recipes.
Every year, Egyptian universities help a few hundred like Belal graduate to work mostly at hospitals and hotels. “But the world is much bigger than hospitals and hotels and people need this information and it is not getting through to them because most TV programmes and newspapers are more interested in providing recipes for inviting dishes rather than nutritionally aware ideas for the poor who are the vast majority of our population,” Belal said.
Healthy cook books are making a lively appearance at the shelves of some bookstores, especially the big cities. Ahmed Bedeir, director of publishing house Dar Al-Shorouk, says that there is a growing interest in such books, including the now fashionable series of good cooking for diabetics and heart patients. “There is also a market for diet books and macrobiotic cooking,” he said.
This said, Bedeir admits that the wider interest remains books that provide recipes for regular cooking, be it from the Egyptian or foreign cuisines. “The cooking books that are most popular are associated with the names of big popular chefs on TV, especially those who have cooking problems.”
At the Heliopolis branch of Diwan bookstore, Lamia was looking for a “Turkish cooking book”. “I went to Istanbul last month on a business trip and I loved the food but I did not have time to pick up a cooking book there,” she said.
People like Lamia might be interested in cooking books that offer recipes from the Turkish to the French cuisines or even healthy cooking books. This is not at all the case of Eman, a housewife from a poorer suburb in western Cairo. “I know how to cook and if I have the money I will not spend it on a cooking book but buy a kilo of meat and fix a nice meal for my children,” she said.
It is not only cooking books that Eman is not interested in but also cooking programmes on TV. “I just don’t tune in to these programmes because I fear that the kids would start staring at the meals that are cooked in the programmes and expect to have them at home,” she added.
Student Belal is convinced that for school children, especially at the economically challenged brackets there needs to be meals offered at school.
FAO is already working on helping with upgrading the nutrition chances of school children in poorer villages and neighbourhoods. It is done to make sure that children are not forced into dropping out of school. A recent statement issued by the Cairo office director suggested that this service would be expanded to help more children eat better and continue learning.
According to Abi Samra, projects like the one conducted by FAO and other local organisations help “some”. “But what is really required is a national policy that could ensure that Egyptians in general can find enough healthy food within their means. This is a basic human right after all.”

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