As Egypt’s dependence on food imports has increased, so has the cry for food security. The phrase “food security” (al-amn al-geza’i) can have several meanings in Egyptian policy debates. It is usually taken to mean either “hedging against fluctuations in world food prices” or “increasing domestic production of food crops.” The Ministry of Agriculture has recently been renamed Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.
Egypt’s goal of increasing output to narrow the food gap is based on two broad strategies: desert reclamation and increased productivity. Yet wheat production has stagnated since the 1970s. And land reclamation has not been enough to offset the land lost to urbanization. Urban spread is now estimated to consume as much as 30,000 hectares of cultivable land each year.
The high and rising consumption of subsidized wheat is a central problem. At 172 kilos per capita a year, Egypt’s wheat consumption is among the highest in the world. Another problem is the cultivation in berseem (a kind of clover) for animal fodder. At more than 700,000 hectares, it takes a larger area than any other single crop in the country. Berseem demand has risen with the demand for meat.
The government intervenes in production and marketing of export crops and food crops. This has led over the years to a sharp dichotomy between “controlled” crops (cotton, sugarcane, rice, onions, wheat) and “non-controlled” crops (maize, fruits and vegetables, and, above all, berseem). Production of the controlled crops has stagnated, and in some cases actually declined, while production of non-controlled crops has boomed.
In the short run, food aid reduces the foreign exchange cost of wheat imports and the fiscal burden of maintaining low consumer food prices. But how does it influence production and consumption of wheat in the long run?
Large supplies of low-priced grain do provide a disincentive for Egyptian farmers to grow local wheat, thereby increasing Egypt’s dependence on imported food. Some argue that food aid helps Egyptian agriculture by freeing up land for higher-priced fruit and vegetable crops. At the heart of the food security debate is the question: What is the most appropriate strategy to achieve food security for a country like Egypt with limited arable land and a growing population? Should Egypt pay for its food imports with the proceeds of exports of cotton, fruit and vegetables? Or should it rather protect itself from fluctuations in world prices by growing food crops? While food self-sufficiency is clearly an impossible proposition, it seems that Egypt might strike a better balance between domestic food production and imports.