Egypt’s chasing impossible dream of wheat sufficiency
Cairo - Inadequate water resources, limited arable land and a national diet heavy on bread make it almost impossible for Egypt to reach self-sufficiency in wheat production, agriculture experts say.
“To produce enough wheat to feed everybody in this country, we need to double the space cultivated with the grain here,” said Gamal Mohamed Siam, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University. “This is impossible to do, at least in the foreseeable future.”
Wheat self-sufficiency is coming to the surface once more as Egyptian farmers begin the harvest. Fuelling the dream is a national project for the cultivation of 344,000 hectares of desert land with wheat. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated the first 2,293 hectares of the project in May.
Sisi watched millions of wheat shafts waving in the wind at the Farafra depression in the Western desert. Millions of Egyptians watched the scene on television and were filled with hope that the newly cultivated farmland would be a step towards wheat self-sufficiency.
Apparently energised by the achievement, Agriculture Minister Essam Fayed said Egypt could produce enough wheat to feed its people by 2030. He said this would be done by increasing the area cultivated with wheat, building more wheat storage and improving efficiency of irrigation systems.
Agriculture experts such as Siam say this is mere fantasy.
Egypt, with a population of about 90 million, is the world’s largest wheat importer. In 2015-16, it imported 11 million tonnes of wheat. Wheat imports feed almost 60% of the population. The 9 million tonnes of wheat produced locally is all used for domestic purposes.
Siam says to bridge the gap between production and consumption, Egypt needs to grow wheat in all its 2.6 million hectares of arable land.
“But this is almost impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, because it will mean that we will have no farmland left for growing other important crops,” he said.
Almost 95% of Egyptians live along the Nile river and in the Nile delta, which contain the country’s most fertile farmland. Arable sections of those areas, however, have been decreasing because of desertification and urbanisation.
Egypt has tried several times, but with little success, to reclaim desert areas to increase cultivable space.
Another key challenge to wheat self-sufficiency is water, of which Egypt already has a remarkable deficit, experts say. Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Nile, its only source of water. That figure is almost 20 billion cubic metres below the country’s water needs.
Irrigation expert Mahmoud Emara said to increase its farmland, Egypt needs to increase water resources.
“Nevertheless, realities on the ground also show that increasing these resources will be a difficult thing to do, given the construction by Ethiopia of a huge dam on the Nile,” he said.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam, which is expected to be operational in a few months, will trim 14 billion cubic metres of water from Egypt’s annual share. This will plunge the country into deeper water deficits.
Egypt is preparing for the dry days ahead by implementing projects that will treat billions of cubic metres of sewage every year. Those projects will keep Egypt’s water supply level as is, not raise it, which means that no additional water will be available for agricultural expansion.
Adding to the intensity of the wheat crisis is a national diet dominated by bread. Egyptians eat 220 million loaves of bread every day, according to the Supply Ministry. Consumers pay only 10% of the price of the bread, while the government has to pay the rest in the form of subsidies — $2 billion in 2015.
Experts say the bread subsidies mean the government pays for the bread twice: When buying wheat from local and international producers and when subsidising prices to the public.
Nevertheless, Egypt’s bread-dependent regime is not likely to change, which puts another hurdle on the road to fulfil its dream of wheat self-sufficiency.
“Bread is a basic component of the diet of almost everybody here, especially the poor, some of whom can only afford the price of a few loaves of it,” nutrition expert Mohamed Fahmi said. “Changing this diet will just mean that millions of poor people will not find anything equally cheap to eat, which could result in a social catastrophe.”