Food Insecurity and Climate Change in Egypt

Dakhla Oasis is one of the seven oases of Egypt's Western Desert. (Photo: Darla Hueske)

To say that Egypt is a country on the edge of crisis should be a surprise to no one. As one of the richest, largest and most influential countries in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, the state’s regression to military control four years after the Arab Spring has left many of the movement’s most hopeful advocates despairing. And yet, these ideological disappointments pale in comparison to the larger existential threat it now faces. Like much of the MENA region, Egypt’s failure to stem corruption, address economic inefficiency and directly address climate change is exacerbating its already acute problem with food security. A three-step plan involving subsidy reform, technological development and caloric diversification could ease some of this danger.

While vast in size, Egypt is dominated by harsh deserts that leave most of the landscape uninhabitable. Today, the bulk of its 82 million citizens live in densely populate cities along the Nile River, crowding into the mere 3 percent of national land that is arable. With bread traditionally serving as a low-cost, basic staple for the nation’s impoverished (now estimated at 26 percent of the population), Egypt cannot grow nearly enough of it to sustain its population. Nonetheless, the government has ensured the widespread availability of this staple by remaining the largest importer of wheat in the world, while guaranteeing low prices as part of its broad network of commodity subsidies.

The promise of affordable bread has for centuries been a central part of the Egyptian social contract between the elite and the poor, and in modern times has served as a pillar of stability in other MENA countries like Syria, Algeria and Tunisia. However, the costs to sustain these artificial prices are not only straining national treasuries to their limits, they are also proving increasingly ineffective against the vagaries of international market forces. In 2010 and 2011, severe weather patterns and diminished crop yields around the globe drove international food prices to historic highs. As inflation outpaced subsidies, this rising cost of food and other basic commodities served as a catalyst for uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria and Syria. By the time Mubarak stepped down in late 2011, MarketWatch reported that Egypt was experiencing food price inflation rates of 19 percent a year, having never fully stabilized from a 2008 spike.

All things remaining as they were, the Arab Spring might have been regarded as the normal ebb and flow of the market mixing with the periodic instability of autocracy. And yet, things will certainly not remain as they were. The specter of climate change looms over the world at large and MENA in particular. A 2011 Scientific American study found that, from 1980 to 2010, the burning of fossil fuels had already reduced the world’s potential wheat and maize yields by 5.5 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively. Within Egypt’s borders, arable land is lost each year to desertification, soil deterioration, and increased salinity. The nation’s yearly shortfall of 7 billion cubic meters of water can be expected to skyrocket if rising levels of the Mediterranean Sea flood Egypt’s northern lakes, choking off fresh water sources and destroying its fish hatcheries.

While it is true that wheat prices have dropped from their peak of $361/MT in November 2012 down to $237/MT in February of 2015, this is no time for complacency. The government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi should use this brief reprieve to address some key vulnerabilities in the country’s food supply. First, the government should strongly re-evaluate the effectiveness of its extensive subsidy program. While this has long been a source of national stability, it’s a solution of diminishing returns for an issue of long-term significance. The current arrangement is based on overall market prices rather then personal income, so that the poor end up paying the same reduced rates as the middle class and wealthy. By reducing or removing these subsidies for all but the most impoverished, it would help reduce the financial strain on Egypt’s government.

Second, using those funds saved through the reduction of subsidies, Egypt should immediately invest in development, infrastructure and technology for the nation’s farms, 90 percent of which are small, low-tech, inefficient and obstructed by government bureaucracy. While there is no sacred alchemy to make arid sands bloom green, all existing farms should use whatever techniques possible to produce the highest yields possible.

Finally, the government should introduce other crops into the economy that might fare better in Egypt’s arid climate. Fonio, an extremely nutritious grain grown in Guinea and Sierra Leone, has a hardiness that allows it to flourish where other staples fail. Cowpea, which already feeds 200 million Africans, can grow in dry, sandy soil while revitalizing it for use with other flora. Even if Egypt were not to cultivate these exact staples, greater engagement with the African agricultural market would diversify its caloric portfolio and provide with better safeguards against global disruption.

None of these proposals will be enough to fully deliver Egypt from its crisis of food security. Every nation in the early 21st century is a part of a global community that must collectively share in the consequences of its actions. And while industrialized nations like the United States and China are the most empowered to take the lead on addressing climate change, developing countries can still take measures to prepare themselves against the worst possible scenarios. If the Egyptian government cannot commit itself to review and reform, the state may soon be devouring itself.