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Social and Economic Implications of Food Import Policies

The global food crisis in 2007/2008 directly contributed to the increase of food price inflation, which reached an unprecedented level of 35.5 % in 2008 (World Food Programme 2008). The Egyptian government responded to the crisis by increasing the level of its food subsidies to an amount that exceeded US$5 billion for 2007/2008. Such an unpredictable and unaffordable bill put further strains on the Egyptian economy, which was already facing budget deficits (Ghoneim 2014). Despite these measures, the rate of poverty could not, in the least, even be sustained and more people slipped into poverty whose levels rose by 15.2 % from 2009 to 2011, twice the rate of those who moved out of poverty in the same period (Breisinger et al. 2013). The food crisis also increased the levels of general inflation by 15.5 % from August 2007 to 2008, all of which aggravated social discontent with the government and its policies. These events have contributed to increased social tensions and instability, which is argued to be one of the main causes of the January 2011 uprisings (Harrigan 2014).

The uprisings in Egypt on 25 January 2011, which are widely known as the Arab Spring, portrayed the significance of the problem of food insecurity in Egypt. Although food security was not the main purpose of the uprisings, the unprecedented inflation in food prices sparked massive social discontent that contributed to the initiation of the Arab Spring. This is not only evident in the slogans used in the uprisings, the most popular of which is the call for bread, freedom and social justice, but also in the food riots that took place as a result of the global increase in food prices in 2007/2008 (Zurayk 2012). The increased levels of food inflation hit all segments of Egyptian society. In 2011, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) reported the average spending of Egyptian households on food to be 40.6 % of income (Breisinger et al. 2013), which is relatively high in international terms. It is therefore not surprising that the uprisings were led by middle-class young professionals and students to call for bread.

Reliance on food imports seems to be an inevitable route for the Egyptian government given the available national pressures as well as the increasing ecological constraints. One of the proposed solutions to reduce food imports is what became known as the land grab policies (Dixon 2014; Harrigan 2014). It is a practice whereby food-deficient countries make agricultural investments in foreign arable land in abundant countries to satisfy their local food demand. Reliance on this policy is increasing in the Middle East region, especially amongst the rich Gulf countries. Egypt has been involved in the practice and is currently investing in Uganda and Sudan to produce strategic crops for domestic consumption such as wheat. Nevertheless, the policy is controversial and is expected to face different challenges in the future (see Harrigan 2014: 126 for a detailed discussion). The other available option is to maximise domestic productivity. Given the limited natural resources available for Egypt for deployment in agriculture the only realistic resort would be the application of all possible measures to reduce resource and food wastes as well as maximise productivity.

These goals have been entrenched in Egypt’s Sustainable Agricultural Development Strategy 2030 developed in 2009. The strategy includes six major objectives as follows: “(i) sustainable use of agricultural natural resources; (ii) improving agricultural productivity; (iii) increasing competitiveness of the agricultural products in local and foreign markets; (iv) achieving higher rates of food security in strategic goods; (v) improving opportunities for agricultural investment; and (vi) improving livelihood of rural inhabitants” (Abul-Naga 2009). These build on former

Agricultural Development Strategies of the 1980s and 1990s and one of the recurring themes across the strategies is the need to improve the skill base of Egyptian labour to be able to support and maintain developments in the agricultural sector. This signifies the resilience of the problem of ineffective VET, which had limited success in supplying labour with the required level of skills for decades as well as limited success to achieve the intended positive contribution to the food security problem.

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