Who is benefiting from Egypt’s agricultural woes?

Agricultural workers represent 25% of the total labour force. During the 1960s and ‘70s, that figure was 51%.
Sunday 21/10/2018
An Egyptian farmer carries wheat crop bundles on a farm in Beni Suef, south of Cairo. (AP)
Troubled sector. An Egyptian farmer carries wheat crop bundles on a farm in Beni Suef, south of Cairo. (AP)

The census taken at the beginning of 2018 puts Egypt’s population at 96.3 million, an increase of 1.5 million since the census in 2017. With so many more mouths to feed each year, the country’s wheat bill is climbing.

Official estimates state that Egypt needs to import $4.3 billion worth of wheat annually and that amount is liable to increase. The population explosion is a heavy burden on the state despite the country’s strategic plans, which observers considered idealistic.

Egypt is also facing a major water shortage problem, which is projected to worsen when the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile in Ethiopia is completed. Egyptian agriculture will be in serious jeopardy unless the government addresses this problem immediately. After all, Egypt has always been a farming country.

The Egyptian budget has allocated $1.4 billion to import 6.4 million tonnes of wheat to meet the bread demands of Egyptians. The state is also spending $2.4 billion a year subsidising bread prices for consumers, therefore supporting the economies of countries such as Canada, Australia, Russia, Romania and France — Egypt’s main wheat suppliers.

Recent Egyptian governments failed to prepare industrial projects dedicated to agricultural production. Farmers, therefore, have not found it worthwhile to continue in their profession and the new generations in the countryside are dreaming of living in the city, as far away as possible from rural life.

“The Egyptian governments have been marginalising the poor,” said Hassan al-Khouli, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo. “Furthermore, the media are always presenting farmers as naive people and linking farming with poverty after it had been the profession of landowners.”

He said that form of bias pushes peasants to flee farming as a profession and sell their land so that they can buy real estate in urban areas and live off the steady income that it provides. Farming continues to decline, along with revenues from the sector, in addition to the social pressures created by migrating to the cities.

Article 29 of the Egyptian Constitution states: “Agriculture is an essential element of the national economy… The state will also endeavour to facilitate increasing crop and animal production and encouraging their related industries.”

Curiously enough, perhaps the rapid spread and popularity of three-wheeled vehicles known as tuk-tuks (there are about 2 million of them in Egypt), has contributed to people leaving farming since running a tuk-tuk service generates net income of about $10 a day.

Khaled Mahmoud, a former agricultural worker who works as a tuk-tuk driver, said he was self-employed and worked as he wished. “I was an agricultural worker and hired by people who control you during working hours, which bothered me a lot, and I used to work for long hours without rest,” he said.

Saeed Khalil, an agricultural expert at the Agricultural Research Centre in Cairo, said that Egypt suffers from a large food gap in strategic crops, such as wheat, rice, sugar and beans but that cannot be blamed on the population explosion alone.

Khalil said many factors led to the collapse of Egyptian agriculture and caused inadequate food supplies and heavy reliance on food imports for more than 30 years.

One factor is the lack of a well-defined government agricultural policy since 1987. The governments have not given enough attention to farming land development and rural development in general, agricultural technology and irrigation, the main axes of agricultural policy in any country.

Egypt has also lost its contractual agriculture compass — encouraging farmers to cultivate strategic crops that the government believes are essential for the country, which the government will commit to purchasing directly from the farmers. This mechanism, used in other countries, guarantees direct support to farmers through the sale of fertiliser and pesticide for strategic crops at reduced prices.

Although some 140,000 hectares were dedicated to cotton in 2018, there have been no buyers since mills could not absorb that quantity of cotton. This proves the absence of a government strategy in this domain.

Khalil stressed that the lack of an agricultural policy in Egypt led to a decline in the number of workers in agriculture. Agricultural workers represent 25% of the total labour force. During the 1960s and ‘70s, that figure was 51%.

The premier agricultural research institute in the region exists in Cairo. Yet, Egypt did not seek to develop more productive and less water-consuming crop varieties.

Abdullah Mubasher, an agricultural economist, said Egypt was facing a desertification wave due to the failure to cultivate crops, particularly rice, that enhanced the ecological balance of soil.

He pointed out the need to allow young people to reclaim desert lands and help them rehabilitate them for farming. They should also be encouraged to settle in cities built near those lands to promote integrated communities.

In all likelihood, these ideas and visions were in the minds of the majority of the governments during the past decades. It is a fact, however, that they have failed to turn them into realities. It is as if there were some powerful lobbies that do not want Egypt to return to investing in agriculture, because they are happy with continuing to import food commodities and make handsome profits in the process.