In recent years, the Egyptian government has often blamed food crises, price hikes, and the lack of certain products on farmers and traders while ignoring macro policies such as the devaluation of the Egyptian pound. Instead, it focuses its efforts on removing subsidies from fuel products, continues to borrow from international partners, and steams ahead with building its new cities.
Earlier this year during the annual Police Day celebrations on 25 January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi blamed the Egyptian media and press for reporting that Egyptians are concerned with the ongoing food crisis. He said: “I blame the media […] why do you show that people are terrified and afraid to eat and drink […] it is not the end of the world.” He added: “Don’t you hear about the economies of major countries [also] affected by crises and wars?”
Climate Change wreaking havoc
As price hikes are affecting essential food products such as bread, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, farmers believe the state is not doing enough to handle fundamental issues that impact agriculture, namely water shortages and climate change-related crop destruction. That’s in addition to the increasing price of fertiliser and their growing inability to pay water bills after three devaluations of the Egyptian pound.
In recent years, Egypt has witnessed climatic disturbances between aggressive heat waves in the spring and summer, soaring to temperatures as high as 50°C-55°C, followed by warm winters, leading to the destruction of crops in 2021, according to researcher Ahmed Khalifa in his paper ‘Climate change and food producers.. Egyptian farmers towards a harsher future’. In some cases, winters have reached unprecedented low degrees, going down to 3°C-4°C, and destroying other crops, such as maize.
Ahmed Awad, a 54-year-old in Upper Egypt, lost 40% of his maize produce last year due to weather extremes between day and night.
“The plants become weak and their colour changes, so they are unable to complete their growth cycle,” Awad tells The Africa Report. “They are not even usable for animals.”
Awad, whose father and grandfather were small-scale farmers, says that climate changes threaten his family’s involvement in farming. “If this continues in the next few years, we might have no choice but to sell the land or benefit from constructing residential buildings.”
“Small-scale farmers are left to be eaten alive. We cannot sell our crops or pay our rent or water bills. But in the end, we are described as the source of the problem,” Awad’s neighbour Salem Al-Qenawi, tells The Africa Report.
The extreme cold last January and February cost Qenawi around 35% of his potato produce. “I ended up losing financially. I couldn’t even cover the cost of fertiliser, seeds, and pesticides which are constantly rising. That’s why farmers raise the prices to make or break the loss.”
Another farmer in Luxor tells The Africa Report that weather extremes could also impact the price of products as it can limit their availability. “If the vegetable or fruit is late in the season, their prices increase when it is available.”
This farmer, who asks to remain anonymous, anticipates that in due time certain crops will not be planted in the next five years, such as cucumbers, watermelons, green peppers, and zucchini, due to soaring costs.
But given the current economic situation, he asks: “Why are we the ones blamed for it (food shortage)?”
New technology to help?
Qenawi’s eldest son, Samir, an agriculture technician, is hopeful as he and other young farmers are starting to experiment with different techniques for distributing seeds and irrigation.
“Some of them fail while others increase the yields and allow crops to have their full growth cycle with no intervention,” Samir says, pointing out that not all farmers are aware of these techniques and that the government has not been supporting many of these measures.
Samir, who followed last year’s COP27 events and was excited to hear the details of the sessions, notes that there is a gap between the discourse of Egyptian politicians and the reality regarding efforts to combat climate change.
However, a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation’s press office told The Africa Report that the ministry is in constant contact with farmers, warning them about the effect of changing weather on their crops.
They refer to a communique that was issued to members of the Agricultural Research Centre to wheat farmers on the ground “as the country is witnessing unstable weather conditions.” It stresses “that this comes due to the strategic importance of the wheat crop and its primary role in achieving Egyptian food security in light of the crisis.”
When asked about the intensity of the food crisis, the representative said: “The lack of global food supplies and international tensions, in addition to [the] Covid [pandemic, have] led to the inevitability of countries relying on their resources to provide food for their people.”
Another obstacle keeping farmers awake at night is water shortage; a problem vocally addressed by the state and its officials but rarely mentioned as a direct reason for the food crisis. The construction up the Nile of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is considered one of the main reasons, in addition to the growing issue of desertification and lack of rain.
As Ethiopia prepares for the fourth filling of the dam in the coming months, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in televised statements earlier in May that Egypt continues to seek a binding legal agreement that protects the water security of Egypt and Sudan. Shoukry has ruled out going again to the UN Security Council for help on the issue.
Without water, there is no farming, and there is no food, not for the farmer’s children or people in the market.
Egypt continues to call on Ethiopia for technical and legal coordination on the filling and operation of its dam to ensure the continuation of the flow of its annual share (55.5 billion cubic metres) from the Nile River, and obtaining water data, especially in times of drought.
A source in the ministry who is close to personnel working on the GERD file tells The Africa Report that the conflict in Sudan has weakened Egypt’s position in the negotiations, adding that the government is seeking alternative talks with concerned sides other than China, Russia, the African Union, and the Security Council.
Egypt is the largest producer of rice in the Middle East and North Africa and it is one of the most water-consuming crops. It has the third highest production in the world after maize and sugarcane. To regulate the water shortage, the government has taken to issuing permits to rice farmers in designated green areas.
The situation in Daqahliyah (Dakahlia), one of the areas permitted by the Egyptian government to cultivate rice, remains unclear: at times growing rice is permitted, and other times a ban is in place.
Hamed Al-Komy, a former rice farmer in the village of Al-Senblawen, tells The Africa Report that the government fined him in 2022 for cultivating rice despite his large land and produce. “Rice is important for farmers, and Daqahliyah is perfect because it is wet soil.”
“Without water, there is no farming, and there is no food, not for the farmer’s children or people in the market,” says Komy, one of the hundreds of farmers affected by the ban on rice cultivation.
Hisham Al-Husari, the chairman of the Agriculture and Irrigation Committee in the House of Representatives, said in a televised statement on 21 May that all agricultural projects in Egypt operate with a modern irrigation system to ration water consumption.
Another such crop of importance to Egypt’s food industry is maize, as it is the main ingredient in the manufacture of 60% of animal, poultry, and fish fodder, and it is involved in the starch industry and the extraction of cooking oil, in addition to being a significant component of subsidised bread.
Ibrahim Abdel Salam, a 45-year-old maize farmer, attended a field day the ministry had organised last August. “They talked to us about laser treatments and levelling to pre-sowing seed treatment to stimulate growth, and new tools and equipment to ration water consumption.
But the head of the Farmers’ Syndicate, Hussein Abu Saddam, tells The Africa Report that one of the big obstacles to changing the irrigation system is a lack of capital. “These new irrigation systems cost money and are not a 100% guarantee that the crops won’t be affected positively or negatively.”
“This takes us to the first point, which is the support that the government should give to small-scale farmers. This should encourage the authorities to intervene to grant farmers soft loans,” Abu Saddam adds.
Food yields going down
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates a significant decline in food yields by 2050, not only because of global warming but also due to water shortage, according to a report in 2021. It warned that within 50 years, agriculture in Egypt will be negatively impacted by climate change in the absence of any intervention and the productivity of most crops will decrease.
The report added that “Consumers bear most of the cost with $2.21bn per year, while producers gain an average of $0.37bn per year, implying that higher prices more than compensate for productivity losses… [but] especially smallholder farmers are marginal producers and net buyers of food, and thus are expected to suffer net economic losses from the combined producer and consumer effects”.
Studies by the Ministry of Agriculture show a decrease in the total production of wheat from 2015 to 2021 of about 8.7m tonnes to 6.07m tonnes annually. The total production of maize during the same years also fell from about 6.8m tonnes to 4.8m tonnes annually.
On the ground, hard-hitting consequences of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound continue, and millions of Egyptians are faced with severe restrictions on their daily lives.
Due to the economic constraints, IFPRI notes that:
- 84% of Egyptians have stopped paying debts and installments
- 79% stopped changing certain products they used to buy
- 74% reduced the quality of food that they eat
- 48% reduced the amount of food they eat
- 43% reduced their health-related expenditure
- 25% reduced their education-related expenditure
- 10% sold existing assets to cope with price hikes
- 1% forced their children to drop out of school
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