Egypt’s ‘white gold’ cotton crop suffers

Sunday 12/06/2016
Egyptian farmers collect the cotton harvest at a farm in the Egyptian Nile delta province of Monufia, north of Cairo.

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.”