Opinion and Editorial

Egypt reverses course in farming

Filed on May 14, 2011

Egypt has released a plan to sharply increase production of important crops, with the goal of becoming self-sufficient in wheat and to “restore the glory” of Egyptian cotton after years of neglect under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Over the 30 years that Mubarak ruled the country, Egypt became the largest wheat importer in the world and the number of cotton fields in production fell to an all-time low.

The goal of ending reliance on imports of wheat, a basic food for the 86 million people in the country, has long eluded Egypt. It lacks sufficient silos, suffers from poor yields and offers few incentives for farmers to grow the crop on a more regular basis, several agricultural experts say.

But the interim government that came to power after the removal of Mubarak in February has declared that it will overturn all that. Egypt imports wheat from Australia, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine and the United States, which alone is expected to account for one third of the wheat imports this year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says Egypt’s wheat imports hit 10 million tons in 2010.

At the heart of a multistage plan is a measure to increase prices offered to wheat farmers by 25 per cent this year, from 280 Egyptian pounds, or $47, per erdab to 350 pounds. An erdab is equal to 150 kilograms.

For the first time in years, the new rate for wheat has been announced well in advance of the next season, which starts in November and ends in April, giving growers ample time to prepare the new crop. The number of hectares of wheat is expected to jump to 1.5 million, or 3.7 millions acres, from 1.2 million hectares. The government also pledged to supply farmers with high-yield seeds and asked them not to keep any seeds from the current crop because of its poor yield.

The government also will subsidise research that, along with better seeds, could sharply increase productivity, and it vowed to remove red tape that complicates the process of setting up companies seeking to grow grains, especially wheat.

After the government announced the agricultural reforms in April, a group of Egyptians in the United States and Saudi Arabia said they would set up a joint company whose goal would be to start a project for “self-sufficiency” in wheat production in Egypt. The company plans to raise 3 billion pounds by encouraging ordinary Egyptians to buy directly into the company. The company says it will plant about 200,000 hectares of wheat next winter.

Wheat has always been a crucial issue in Egypt because of the importance of bread, a staple for many people. Long lines at bakeries are seen as a barometer for the success or failure of the government to care for its own people. The country has seen several “bread riots,” including mass protests in 1977 that led former President Anwar Sadat to call in the army and roll back planned bread price increases. Bread shortages, along with other factors, helped to spur the unrest that led to Mubarak’s fall.

Egyptians fear that without self-reliance, wheat inventories could reach dangerously low levels, sparking more unrest. To further improve Egypt’s wheat security, the government intends to push for a significant reduction in the loss of wheat caused by poor storage and transportation, now estimated at about 20 per cent, by building new metal silos and using more professional transportation.

The Agriculture Ministry’s plan also focuses on sharply increasing the land devoted to cotton, another crop that the government considers strategic, from 150,000 hectares this year to at least 200,000 hectares next year. The move comes amid tough international competition, low prices and a lack of government subsidies, all of which have combined to turn many farmers away from the crop.

The plan calls for providing better information and advice to farmers, while at the same time supplying them with affordable fertilizers and pesticides. The government also has promised to work to open new markets for Egypt’s cotton exports and says that producing cotton will become profitable as international prices rise, luring more farmers into the business.


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