Egypt’s ‘white gold’ cotton crop suffers
Monufia, Egypt - Lack of government support, an invasion of cheaper staples from other countries, huge losses incurred by farmers and price fluctuations in international markets scare Egyptian farmers away from growing cotton and into planting more profitable crops, agriculture experts and farmers said.
“All these factors make the disappearance of Egypt’s celebrated long staple cotton very possible in the future,” said Gamal Siam, a professor of agricultural economics at Cairo University. “This will be a major economic loss for the country.”
The area used to cultivate Egyptian long staple cotton is shrinking each year. Cotton production is expected to drop in 2016 to 315,000 bales (each bale weighs 180 kg). In 2015, Egypt produced 525,000 bales of cotton, the Ministry of Agriculture said.
Egyptian farmers have 103,000 planted hectares of cotton in 2016. In 2015, 155,000 hectares of farmland were cultivated with cotton. The government expects the area cultivated with cotton to continue to drop over the next four years at least.
Cotton exports are predicted to total 130,000 bales this year. In 2015, Egypt exported 150,000 bales, with India, China, Italy, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan the top export destinations in 2015. They are expected to remain so in 2016.
Such a sad reality signals the end of the country’s cotton cultivation success story. In the 1960s, Egypt cultivated almost one-third of its farmland of 2 million hectares with cotton, an important source of national income.
For three centuries, Egyptian cotton marked one of the country’s biggest competitive advantages. Having established a reputation of being the “best” cotton in the world, its softness, strength and superior characteristics positioned Egypt’s cotton-made products as highly sought around the world.
Standing behind the demise of this once-flourishing business is a government policy of halting subsidies to cotton farmers, according to Farag al-Mashad, a farmer in his mid-40s.
“Those who grow cotton have nothing to reap but loss,” Mashad said. “Cotton was good in the past but, with no support from the government whatsoever, it brings farmers nothing in terms of financial value.”
The government used to subsidise cotton but in 2014 stopped payments to farmers and spinners and required farmers to have contracts with third parties to qualify for subsidised fertiliser and seed. It asked spinning and weaving companies to sign contracts with farmers at government fixed prices.
Thousands of farmers, such as Mashad, were unable to sign contracts with spinning and weaving companies.
“This was why I decided to stay away from this hassle altogether,” he said.
Thousands of farmers did the same. Mashad’s farmland and fields around it in Monufia province in the Nile delta used to glow under the sun with white cotton flowers. This view is now becoming a rarity with farmers turning to more profitable and easier-to-market crops, including vegetables, fruits and wheat.
The migration from cotton cultivation was accompanied by an invasion of cheap ready-made textile products from China, India and Pakistan, which forced the closure of Egypt’s sprawling textile factories and eliminated thousands of jobs.
There is no solid estimate of the number of textile factories that shut down in al-Mahalla al-Kobra and Kafr al-Dawar, Egypt’s textile industry hubs in the delta, but Mohamed Ghazal, the owner of a spinning company in Mahalla, attributes the losses to the collapse of Egypt’s cotton farming.
“The presence of our quality long staple cotton used to make textile factory machines run, not only here, but across the world,” said Ghazal, 55. “Now, however, spinning and weaving factories have to depend on imported short staple cotton from other countries.”
Apart from quality, products made with imported cotton cannot compete with imported ready-made goods in price, which was why a large number of the factories around Ghazal’s have closed.
The government faults farmers for being “only after money” in scrapping cotton for other crops. It adds that Egyptian cotton is losing its competitive edge in international markets for several reasons, including that some farmers mix long staple seeds with short staple ones when they plant.
“Nonetheless, we will bring cotton back to its past glories by offering long staple seeds to farmers,” said Eid Hawash, spokesman of the Ministry of Agriculture. “The Agriculture Minister has already issued a decision to bar farmers from mixing seeds, a practice that ushers in low-quality cotton.”