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The Problem of Food Security in Egypt

Food security in Egypt is a multifaceted problem caused by an amalgamation of national and international factors. On a national level, the food gap—the difference between food demand and supply—is increasing due to two main pressures: (i) population growth and (ii) domestic production. The relatively high levels of population growth pose a serious challenge to the Egyptian government to achieve food self-sufficiency (Ianchovichina et al. 2014). Egypt’s population growth rates were 2.2 % between 2011 and 2015, which is higher than similar Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEMED) countries such as Morocco and Turkey at an average of 1.4 % and 1.2 %, respectively, for the same period (World Bank 2016). This pressure increases food demand year on year at relatively high levels in a manner that eats up development efforts to maintain sustainable food supply. Not only did domestic production fail to keep up with the high rates of population growth but it accumulated various inefficiencies since the 1960s due to historical institutional deficiencies that contributed to a deceleration in productivity.

Prior to the 1952 revolution, Egypt was a food exporter but this did not last long under the Nasserist regime in which the agricultural sector went through important changes, mainly land reforms, which disturbed domestic production and the strategic development of the sector. The Nasserist regime called for land reforms to achieve an equal distribution of land and wealth to all Egyptians. Restrictions were imposed on the maximum amount of landownership for individuals, and families and peasants were given the opportunity for the first time to be landowners. From a social perspective, this policy seemed to be successful, especially as it was part of a larger social contract where people were given extra social benefits in return for state-repressive policies.

However, ineffective planning of the process eventually had negative implications on the agricultural policies of Egypt, which was left in a worse position than it was in prior to the revolution, and in the 1960s Egypt started relying on food imports. Further disturbance to agricultural policies took place under the subsequent Sadatist regime, which retaliated against this social contract and supported private landowners as part of its general policy towards economic liberalisation. Previous landowners were able to reclaim at least some of their land and emphasis was put on maximising export returns from certain profitable crops, regardless of local demand, which in time exhausted the already limited arable land in Egypt (Bush 2007, 2009). The availability of a clear and strategic vision of agricultural development was largely lacking in the 1970s and 1980s during which agricultural productivity suffered and its growth rates were around 0.8 % and 1.1 %, respectively (Belloumi and Matoussi 2009).

In the meantime, total investments in agriculture by the government reached 8 % in the 1970s after reaching 23 % in the 1960s (Belloumi and Matoussi 2009). The lack of political willingness to prioritise investments in the agricultural sector was the main reason why it floundered in subsequent years. Meanwhile, reliance on food imports increased throughout the same period and, by the end of the 1980s, Egypt’s food imports represented more than half of the overall national food consumption (Bush 2007). The agricultural sector trade balance fell considerably, reaching in the mid-1980s a deficit of US$3 billion though it was in a surplus of US$300 million in 1970 (Bush 2007). Negligence of the agricultural sector was concomitant with negligence of peasants, rural development and agricultural education and training, all of which contributed directly and indirectly to the current problem of food insecurity.

The institutionally inherited challenges facing food production are further complicated by different ecological and environmental factors. Egypt’s already limited arable land, which represents only 3.6 % of the total area, suffers a number of environmental threats such as soil drainage and salinisation (FAO 2016; Karajeh et al. 2011). This threatens the effectiveness of arable land and its productivity and could potentially reduce the productive capacity of these areas. The scarcity of water resources is another challenge. Agricultural irrigation represents more than 80 % of Egypt’s total water consumption. Given population growth, water resources are expected to become scarcer by time. On a different geo-political front, supply of water from the Nile River, which represents 73 % of total water supply, is threatened by the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam. The latter is expected to significantly disturb water flows in the Nile River and ultimately have considerable impact on Egypt’s share of water from the Nile (Gebreluel 2014). Water supply is also expected to be negatively influenced by climate change with anticipations of high increases in temperature as a result of global warming. These will have a direct effect on the levels of productivity of some important crops, such as maize and wheat (El-Nahrawy 2011; Karajeh et al. 2011).

Another major risk of climate change is the rise in sea levels that will put Egypt’s Low Elevation Coastal Zone and the Nile Delta, which has the highest density of arable lands, at risk, ultimately influencing agriculture and other economic activities (El-Nahrawy 2011; Karajeh et al. 2011). Egypt has taken some measures to reduce environmental risks such as developments to the irrigation system to preserve water; however, the enforcement of these measures remains limited due to various reasons but one of the main challenges is farmers’ and workers’ limited awareness, education and training.

To bridge the food gap, Egypt relies on external sources of food: international food aid and imports, both of which depend on international markets and factors. Food aid has been a consistent source of food since the 1960s; for instance, in 1963 Egypt was the largest per capita recipient of US food aid worldwide (Burns 1985) and is still a major recipient of food aid from the USA. However, Egypt’s reliance on food aid is not as significant as food imports. The latter is the major source of food supply to Egypt, fulfilling almost 50 % of total food demand. As a net importer, the country is left with many challenges as a result. Egypt’s reliance on food imports aggravates its susceptibility to global food price shocks. This was evident in the 1970s food crisis which resulted in an unforeseen food price inflation that prompted President Sadat to reduce food subsidies in response to the increased bill of food imports. Egyptians responded with a series of food riots throughout the country and as a result Sadat withdrew this decision. Food subsidies have since been considered a major tool for maintaining social stability and the Egyptian government has been eager to sustain its food subsidy programmes at any expense.

Currently, the government relies on two broad categories of food subsidy programmes: (i) ration cards that enables eligible people to buy basic food items based on certain quotas and it is currently being replaced by smart cards; and (ii) subsidised baladi (peasant) bread. The latter represents 61 % of all food subsidies and represents 71 % of food available to the poor though it is available to all citizens regardless of their income (Breisinger et al. 2013). These policies put high economic pressures on the government, especially given its significant reliance on wheat imports, the main ingredient in the subsidised baladi bread. These pressures became increasingly challenging after the global food crisis of 2007/2008 which Egypt struggled to cope with (Breisinger et al. 2013; Trego 2011; World Food Programme 2013).

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