Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Good news on food

According to a recent FAO report on food security, the vast majority of Egyptians have access to adequate food, even if this may not always seem to be reflected on the ground.
Sherine Abdel-Razek spoke to Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for the Near East and North Africa

Al-Ahram Weekly

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)  Status of Food Insecurity report, the number of people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide has decreased. What is the situation in Egypt? Could you summarise the situation regarding food security in the country?
The number has decreased significantly worldwide, and this is good news because it has happened at a time when the world is facing the worst economic and financial crisis in many years. It means that there have been enormous efforts made worldwide, including in the developing countries, to deal with the issue of food insecurity.
In measuring food security, the FAO focuses on the prevalence of under nourishment or hunger, and this reflects the number of people who do not have the means to get 1,840 calories per day, the energy needed to have an active life. Applying this measure to Egypt, we find that less than five per cent of the population lacks food security. Egypt has always had a very low rate of food insecurity.
However, it is important to stress that this is a measure of chronic hunger and not malnutrition. When we look at the kind of diet or the quality of food, this is a different story. There are certain places in Egypt that suffer from malnourishment, which stems from a lack of adeqquate balance between different kinds of food, for example. And here the Egyptian case does not differ from most developing countries, where food consumption is mainly based on carbohydrates.
For example, in the Middle East 40 per cent of the caloric intake is derived directly or indirectly from wheat, and this shows how the region is dependent on just one single commodity, which is not healthy. In Egypt, the percentage of energy supplied from cereals including wheat is 67 per cent. It is not only a matter of not having a healthy diet as a result, but depending on one source of food also increases the country’s vulnerability to international shocks, as due to a lack of water resources wheat is not produced in the region but is mainly imported.

While most Egyptians do not face chronic hunger, what other food security indicators do you find worrisome when looking at the report?  
First, we are concerned about unbalanced food consumption patterns — for example, the average daily supply of protein of animal origin in Egypt is 21 grammes per capita, which is low compared to the rest of the world. Recent years have witnessed some improvements thanks to heavy investments in the country’s poultry industry, but the latter has been hard hit by avian flu, which is still endemic. Egypt needs to diversify the production of different sources of protein.
There is a good potential for diversification of local food consumption. FAO and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development organised an investment forum three months ago to look into the potential of investments in food commodities where Egypt has a competitive advantage, such as horticulture production (fruits and vegetables). It was interesting to see large exporters saying that they needed to look at the national market. This is a market of 80 million people, and here any investments in food production will likely generate profit.
Egyptians need to increase their dietary intake of vegetables and fruit. Egypt is one of the largest exporters of fruit and vegetables, and yet these things are often absent from Egyptian tables. Meanwhile, and according to World Health Organisation recommendations, each person should have 400gm of vegetables and fruits per day to live a healthy life.
The second concern about the status of food security is from a macroeconomic perspective. This refers to the capacity od the state to provide food to its citizens. For Egypt, we assess this according to two factors: the availability of the foreign currencies needed to import main food commodities, and the process of making this food reach the most vulnerable by making it affordably priced and easy to access physically. This means alsolooking at road networks and food distribution chains.  
The government in Egypt also pays a huge subsidy bill to make food affordable. Here again, one major concern is the high dependence of the country on imports of cereals, in particular the import of wheat. There is not much that the country can do on that front, however, as wheat needs a lot of water and water is simply not available to produce cereals in Egypt. As a result, the best approach is to strike a balance between food consumption and patterns and that of crops production in order to reduce vulnerability to wheat import shocks.

Some indicators seem to paint a better picture than what many Egyptians experience in their real lives, for example access to clean water resources and sanitation. According to the report, 95 per cent of Egyptians enjoy these things, but that may come as a surprise to the residents of many rural areas and shanty neighbourhoods.
We base these calculations on a number of indicators. Some of them are gathered by the FAO and others international organisations, but all of them are based on international standards and are measured according to certain definitions. The definition of improved water resources, according to the UNICEF, is sources that are protected from outside contamination, particularly with fecal matter. According to this definition, the status of access to water and sanitation has improved dramatically in Egypt in recent years.

In the prevalence of under nourishment indicator, Egypt’s score is less than five per cent, which means that almost all Egyptians are well-nourished and have an adequate supply of food. Is this not a strange outcome in a country that has more than 40 per cent of its population living on under $2 per day?
Poverty and undernourishment are not synonnomous. Povert is a relative concept.  The equivalent measure of food insecurity is extreme poverty, because this is the measure of the prevalence of hunger. So those who are extremely poor in Egypt are around 1.7 per cent, and those who don’t have access to enough calories are less than five per cent, so there is a consistency and not a contradiction between the two figures.

In the vulnerability indicator in the report, the percentage of arable land equipped for irrigation is 100 per cent. How can this help improve food security in Egypt?
This indicator says that the arable land in Egypt is mostly irrigated by river water, compared to other countries of the world, like Europe, where cultivated land is watered by rain or other water resources. If we look at this indicator from a global perspective, it means that agriculture in Egypt depends on the Nile as there is no other source of water. Despite the fact that Egypt is making good use of this as the productivity of major crops like wheat and rice is high, the future will be for sustainable agricultural production — sustainable from the resources point of view.
This indicator highlights the fact that there is not much possibility of expanding the arable land in Egypt because the water resources are limited to only one source. So the country needs to make the best use of each drop it has in order to reduce the drainage of these resources by modern agriculture and irrigation systems. It needs to maximise the productivity of crops by investing more in the sector and by providing farmers with the knowledge needed to increase their productivity and improve the crop mix.
The private sector has invested a lot in this sector, with the largest investors being the farmers themselves. The FAO has also recommended that countries should increase their investments in the agricultural sector to reach seven to eight per cent of GDP. The government has a role to play by providing the needed infrastructure, which is why the FAO, in its measuring of food security, collects data on paved roads, access to drinking water and sanitation. If you ask investors here why they were investing in Egypt and not in other places, the answer would be the presence of good infrastructure.

The report sheds light on Egypt’s vulnerability to shocks, and it includes references to the Political Stability and Absence of Violence Index, which stood at 1.29 in 2011, the second highest in the region. Do you think Egypt’s standing here has now deteriorated as a result of the recent political developments and could this affect food security?
This is an indicator compiled by the World Bank governance project, and the figure here is the latest available. The FAO cannot give an assessment of how it has changed, as we need to see what happens next. We need to assess that. Sometimes, there is an acceleration of events that may then subside later on. The effect might also be localised at a single point of time, and the general effect might not be that big. What we are monitoring now is the effect of the developments on the country’s ability to import and to have adequate stocks of main commodities and thus the effect on prices. On that front the situatin has been stable.

In measuring Egypt’s vulnerability to shocks, the report presents the country as having one of the highest volatilities of food prices in the world. Why?
The Price Volatility Index reflects the acceleration or deceleration of increases in prices. We don’t have the objective reasons behind this increase. We did not monitor the factors causing prices to increase, but we can suggest possible reasons. If you look at the inflation figures during the past year, they had a tendency to increase in an abrupt pattern. The accelerated increases happened in 2009 and 2010, when inflation jumped to 24 per cent after the food price hikes and the financial crisis. The changes then increased at a faster pace.
In addition, when you have acceleration in inflation it tends to generate behaviours among customers and merchants that lead to other rounds of inflation. The government is aware of this volatility and the fact that it is not justified by fundamental economic reasons, so it is currently contemplating introducing caps on the prices of some commodities. This is a factor that is related to vulnerability, as because Egypt relies on food imports.it also imports inflation and the increases in prices then pass through to consumers although the food subsidies smoothen the effect of inflation.



World food insecurity in 2013

- A total of 842 million people were estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger in 2011-13, in other words regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life. This figure is lower than the 868 million estimated last year for 2010-12.
- Improvements are reflected in the lower global prevalence of undernourishment, which reflects higher estimates of food consumption in some key countries and regions.
- The most progress was recorded in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam, among others.
- Very slow progress was recorded in several African countries, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia, which had increases in the estimated number as well as the prevalence of undernourished people in their populations.
- The FAO report measures food security according to four dimensions: food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilisation and stability (vulnerability and shocks) over time.
- The 1996 World Food Summit goal, which requires halving the number of undernourished people between 1990 and 2015, appears to be out of reach at the global level. To meet this goal, the number of hungry people in developing regions would have to be reduced from the current 842 million to 498 million by 2015. Many countries are on track to meet the target.

Egypt in the FAO report

- The prevalence of under-nourishment in Egypt is less than five per cent.
- Egyptians get 67 per cent of their energy supply from cereals, roots and tubers.
- The average protein supply per day is 97 grammes per capita per day in Egypt compared to a world average of 79 grammes.
- The average protein supply of animal origin is 21 grammes per day in Egypt compared to a world average of 31 grammes.
- The average dietary energy supply adequacy, which measures energy supply as a percentage of daily energy requirements, is 147 in Egypt, higher than the world average of 122.
- Egypt’s dependency on cereal imports is 35.5 per cent compared to a world average of 15.7 per cent.
- The depth of the food deficit, indicating how many calories would be needed to lift the undernourished out of their present condition, other things being equal, is just eight calories in Egypt versus an average of 83 worldwide.
- The percentage of underweight children under the age of five in Egypt stands at 6.8 per cent.



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