Egypt’s daily bread: A new campaign promises self-sufficiency against the odds
Wheat - AFP/Juan Mabromata

CAIRO: Nearly five years ago, Tahrir Square teemed with protestors demanding bread, freedom, and social justice; in 2016 the government is still struggling to procure sufficient wheat to keep it on Egyptians’ tables.

An ambitious governmental plan to secure food security for Egypt has allocated 700,000 feddans (roughly equivalent to acres) for the cultivation of wheat, however many experts say this allocation falls fall short of the country’s growing food needs.

The Egyptian government has announced a project of reclaiming 1.5 million feddans nationwide, allocating 46.6 percent of these lands for growing wheat, in a bid to achieve self-sufficiency.

Egypt plants 3.2 million feddans of wheat annually, which represents 40 percent of the total arable lands, producing a total of 9 million tons of wheat, Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Eid Hawash told The Cairo Post Saturday.

Hawash continued only 4-5 million tons of the produced amounts go for subsidized bread while the left amount could be used as seed wheat, or is lost through transportation and improper storage methods, Hawash added.

Herculean effort

The leap to self sufficiency is not a small one: Egypt imports more than 50 percent of its needs. Supply Commodities Authority spokesperson Mahmoud Diab said that Egypt consume 15 million tons annually; of which 11 tons are imported. Reaching self-sufficiency of wheat would require cultivating a total of 7.5 million feddans, “which is equivalent to all of the current arable land in Egypt,” Diab told The Cairo Post.

Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world; and FAO report in October that “Wheat imports for the 2015/16 marketing year are estimated at 11 million tons, about the same as the previous year and the average for the last five years.”

Egypt’s General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC) announced Tuesday an international tender to buy 55,000 to 60,000 tons of wheat, adding that it is considering bids from the U.S., Australia, Canadia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Germany.

Egypt wheat reserves are enough to last until June, according to Diab.

Egyptian New Countryside

President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi launched in December 2015 the project to reclaim and cultivate a total of 1.5 million feddans nationwide, mostly in desert areas. The project, which is called The Egyptian New Counryside, will be carried out three phases; the first round would reclaim a total of 500, 000 feddans in the Farafra depression, Toshka city of Upper Egypt’s Aswan, areas of Ismailia, Qena, Minya and Dakhla.Per the government plan, 70 percent of the to-be-cultivated lands are allocated for grain crops with low water needs, and the remaining 30 percent would be used for fruits, Hawash said.

The lands will be irrigated by groundwater; Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hossam Moghazi stated in a talk show that 92 percent of the water for the cultivated lands will be ground water, not sourced from the Nile.

Natural barriers

“The nature of the soil in the desert is weak to produce the expected amount; cultivating one feddan will produce only 10 ardebs (150 kilograms) instead of 18 ardebs,” agricultural expert Hossam Reda told The Cairo Post.

An Agricultural Ministry spokesperson told The Cairo Post that the ministry has implemented rules governing the cultivation of land, which include the specific crops grown on the land, and farmers who do not cooperate could be barred from working their land.

How the government would achieve this, however, remains unclear.

“It is difficult in practice to force farmers to plant a certain crop,” Reda said, adding that during the Nasser era, the government had a communist system that put all farmers in a collectively-managed system, and the rate of wheat production was easily managed by the government.

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