Sunday, March 11, 2012

egypt's food future

Nearly all 82 million Egyptians, along with almost all agricultural lands, are squeezed into just five per cent of the nation's total land area: A strip running eight to 15 kilometres wide along the Nile River and fanning out through the Delta. It's as if the entire population of the United States and all of our agriculture were clustered within 60 kilometres of the Mississippi. That leaves only one twenty-fifth of a hectare of agricultural land per Egyptian, or a 20-by-20-metre postage stamp of ground sown to wheat, rice, maize, lentils, beans, vegetables, cotton, animal forage, and date palms. As a result, Egypt has become the world's number-one importer of wheat, and imports a large share of many other food requirements.

The country's crops - all irrigated - are generally very productive, but with every grain harvest, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients are removed from the soil and must be replaced. Berseem clover, a legume that pulls its nitrogen from the air, is a ubiquitous fodder crop, and the nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich manure from livestock can be returned to the soil. And food crops are often interplanted with date palms, whose long-lived roots help hold the soil. But neither practice can replace the nutrients that are sucked from the land year-round by most food crops. Therefore, Egypt's farmers have little choice but to apply very large quantities of synthetic fertilisers in order to maintain their crop yields, making grains like wheat even more costly to produce. And those farmers, the large majority of whom cultivate plots of less than a hectare and a half, are not cash-rich, meaning that the government must step in to pay them a subsidised price for grain in order to keep the farm economy going. Egyptian families - 42 per cent of whom live below the international $2.50-per-person-per-day poverty line - struggle to meet their monthly requirement for conventionally produced, no-frills fava beans, lentils and vegetables at prices they can afford.

Prime lands of the Nile Valley and Delta are being lost at an alarming rate to urban sprawl. Upriver from Cairo, for example, huge private homes with walled-in compounds are sprouting across the landscape in less time than it takes to grow and harvest a crop of wheat. Although the total quantity of farmland in Egypt has increased over the years thanks to the "reclamation" of desert through sprinkler and drip irrigation, those new lands are much less productive than the river-valley soils that have supported Egyptian society since before the time of the Pharaohs. There have long been laws against building on agricultural land in Egypt, but enforcement has always been lax. During the past year, with the government otherwise occupied, there was virtually no enforcement at all. Powerful economic interests have jumped into that vacuum, and land-grabbing and construction on cropland have accelerated. Economically stressed farmers have a hard time resisting offers of big money from aggressive developers.

If Egyptians manage to wrest economic and political power from the oligarchs who have held it for so long, they will have a chance to protect their agricultural landscape and ensure a good food supply for everyone. But until that transformation happens, achieving food security along the Nile will remain a day-to-day struggle.

Extracts from
Stan Cox, research coordinator at The Land Institute, Kansas, USA.

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