Making Egypt More Food Secure

Egyptians buy government-subsidized bread from a bakery in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt has spent $4 billion a year, or 1.8% of GDP, on its bread subsidization program in an attempt to insulate the 40% of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day from inflation. But prices continue to rise.

By Jake Caldwell, Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress, and coauthor of “The Coming Food Crisis.”

Egypt faces daunting challenges as it prepares for broad presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. Ongoing volatility in global food prices will strain resources during this critical transitional period.

As the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt is acutely vulnerable to any surge in food prices. Wheat prices have risen 47 percent over the last year and other staples are rapidly approaching dangerously high levels.

Food price inflation and volatility strike hard at the household budgets of average Egyptian families. Many of them spend 40 percent of their monthly income on food. As prices rise, purchasing power is eroded, and the recovery of Egypt’s fragile economy during the transition is slowed.

Ensuring Egyptians have access to a reliable and affordable food supply is an urgent priority for both Egypt and the United States. Regrettably, conservatives in the House of Representatives appear headed in a different direction and are slashing funding for international humanitarian assistance. This includes funding for emergency food aid, investments in women and small landholder farms, and efforts to combat climate change in some of the most vulnerable countries in the world.

These drastic and shortsighted cuts undermine our strategic relationships with allies such as Egypt, undercut the jobs and farms at home that rely on selling U.S. goods overseas, and lead to increased levels of global poverty and instability that threaten our national security.

The United States, in partnership with Egypt, can act immediately to ensure Egypt’s food security with both short-term emergency assistance and a renewed long-term investment in Egyptian agriculture and economic development. As my colleague Neera Tanden details in another column this week, the Obama administration must develop a multipronged strategy with the private sector and the Egyptian people that is tightly focused on ensuring rapid economic growth and investment. Providing assistance to Egypt to help it boost its long-term food security should be part of that strategy.

Food prices and rising uncertainty

Food prices are at record levels partly due to population growth and increased demand from a recovering global economy, tight supplies, high oil prices, and weak agricultural production attributable to climate change-induced natural disasters and crop loss in key producing nations.

But the most striking aspect of this latest surge in food prices is the destabilizing role of a relatively new and powerful factor confronting the world’s food system: uncertainty.

Our changing climate is feeding this uncertainty. Climate change is causing extreme weather events such as massive flooding in Australia, Pakistan, and Brazil; unprecedented heat waves and drought in Russia, Ukraine, and now China; heavy rains in Iowa and Illinois; and dry conditions in key U.S. wheat-growing regions such as Kansas and Colorado. These are all affecting food production and have injected a level of doubt into forecasts for upcoming harvests, current stockpiles, and the prospects for the spring planting season.

Food price volatility and uncertainty are further triggered by shortsighted government and private-sector actions. These include government export bans and hoarding of tight supplies, unreliable information regarding stockpiles, and trade-distorting subsidies and tariffs. Increased private speculation in commodity markets and outdated ethanol policies contribute to instability in the international food system.

In the face of rising uncertainty and greater risk in global food markets, prices will only go in one direction: up.

Egypt, agriculture, and food: What can be done?

Any effort to stabilize food prices in Egypt must be led by Egyptians to identify and meet local needs. But the United States has a role to play.

Egypt is not facing the chronic food shortages that continue to ravage Pakistan in the wake of devastating floods or drought-stricken Kenya. Nonetheless, dramatic spikes in food prices disproportionately affect Egypt’s poor.

Rapid population growth, widespread poverty, massive unemployment among the two-thirds of Egyptians under 30 that form part of the youth bulge, and spiraling inflation all make it difficult for families to keep pace with rising food costs. Egypt has spent $4 billion a year, or 1.8 percent of GDP, on its bread-subsidization program in an attempt to insulate the 40 percent of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day from inflation. And yet prices continue to rise.

Short-term actions

In the short term the United States should temporarily reinstate a program to provide low-cost financing that enables the Egyptian private and public sector to purchase commodities to fill strategic reserves and maintain full and transparent wheat stocks beyond Egypt’s current six-month minimum. Support for low-cost loans to Egyptian farmers would also increase agricultural output. The United States should also work directly and through the U.N. World Food Program to identify and provide targeted emergency food aid to Egypt’s school-feeding programs and most vulnerable populations.

Further, the United States can facilitate relatively rapid investment in Egyptian food-distribution infrastructure by arranging for the upgrade and expansion of grain-storage capacity at major ports, including Alexandria. The United States can also mitigate shipping risk and provide further technical assistance to improve the efficiency and transparency of Egyptian financing, customs, and tariffs procedures to make sure that arriving overseas grain is offloaded efficiently and can get to where it needs to be in the shortest time possible. All efforts must be made to ensure the Suez Canal operates at full capacity to ensure global grain shipments reach their final destinations expeditiously.

Midterm and long-term actions

In the midterm to long term, the United States must increase its investment in Egypt’s agricultural development. Agriculture directly employs one-third of Egypt’s labor force and cost-effective and strategic agricultural investment in Egypt can produce lasting dividends while minimizing the impact of uncertainty on food markets.

This increased U.S. and private-sector investment and technical assistance should be used to strengthen yields in key domestic food commodities such as wheat, edible oil, sugar, and dairy to bridge Egypt’s food gap. A focus on women farmers and small landholders and the production of high-value export crops such as fruits, vegetables, and livestock can boost incomes and employment and take advantage of Egypt’s proximity to potential markets.

As my colleague John Norris makes clear in another column this week, no “cookie cutter” assistance program will work for Egypt unless it truly reflects the real needs and aspirations of Egyptians. Along these lines, the United States should explore the feasibility of reinstating its practice of providing assistance directly to members of Egyptian civil society rather than relying on government-approved organizations.

Agriculture remains the most distorted sector in international trade. The Group of 20 leading developed and developing countries, or G-20, must do more to open markets in agricultural goods. Export bans and the hoarding of grain supplies must be strongly discouraged. Subsidies and tariffs in developed countries and barriers to trade between developing countries must be eliminated. The G-20 has pledged $20 billion for agriculture in developing countries and $6 billion for a World Bank fund for food security. Only $925 million has been delivered.

The G-20 is planning to make food security a centerpiece of their June summit. Investment today in Egyptian agriculture can reflect a prominent down payment on that commitment.

Helping Egypt is a matter of national security

Climate change’s impact on world agriculture is projected to be severe. Egypt is at profound risk to the negative effects of climate change, including rising temperatures, prolonged drought, increased evaporation, and water consumption. Egypt is also vulnerable to rising sea levels leading to more intense flooding, the loss of key agricultural land in the Nile Delta, and the mass migration of 8 million people from rural to urban areas.

In the face of looming water shortages due to increased demand and the effects of climate change, Egypt must also address water-management issues associated with the Nile and reengage with its Nile Basin neighboring countries regarding the future of this shared regional resource.

It is in the U.S. national security interest to provide financing to allow Egypt and the most vulnerable developing countries to prepare for and adapt to the effects of climate change in agriculture and development as resources become scarcer and the global population climbs to 9 billion by 2050. Open and transparent adaptation programs that meet the goals and needs established by local communities must become a U.S. priority.

In the short term, food prices, and specifically wheat prices, are likely to remain high. The rise and volatility of wheat prices place significant pressure on the Egyptian people and their economy. Uncertainty fed by climate change-induced natural disasters, crop loss, and misguided government actions will only drive prices higher. The United States, in partnership with the Egyptian people, can act now to ease the impact of food prices and lay a strong foundation for lasting and durable economic growth.

Jake Caldwell is Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress.

More on Egypt from CAP:

23 Responses to Making Egypt More Food Secure

  1. Prokaryotes says:


    So what will happen if the world keeps in denial on climate change and action?

    Today the MENA region is still a positive scenario, where order remains and subsidies and resource can be still organized. But what if those cease? What if such a situation is during a killer heatwave, such as last year in Pakistan with record shattering temperatures 53.6C?. When going outside was no option.

    Even if people have resources and want to help, will be rendered impossible, due to power outages and heat bulb temperatures. The 2003 EU heatwave offered a glimpse of that new flavor and killed at least 30.000 people during a few days period. Under sustained conditions you will have cholera and other illness to deal with. Which nobody could really prepare for, unless you are lucky and live somewhere far from civilization and somehow managed to grow your own foods and stuff. Just how long will these kind of approaches work? 50 years, world in anarchy … The chaos will spread like a wildfire and military conflict with all kinds of weapons will be used to get hold of climate refugees.

    But this won’t help because the climate is everywhere, working from within, destroying the psych and physical strength of every man. Woman, old people and kids will die first. Those which remain are traumatized and have forms of PSD.

    Just 1 degree temperature rise, increases alcohol usage, violence and risks of health conditions.

    On the bottom line is, once you lose order and chaos unfolds the chances of taken action to combat climate change will decline exponentially.

    So what is the world waiting for? That an considerable amount of earth human population dies-off and once that happens we start to take action? Really?
    Or just sit it out and hope for a wonder, which will not happen?

    At this point no conspiracy theory seems awkward enough to guess the means by the people responsible for the slow progress on the climate front. Some form of ignorance and sociopathic behavior? Coupled with Misanthropy?

  2. Lore says:

    So the conclusion is let’s buy some temporary friends over in Egypt by supporting a population that is obviously in overshoot? This is really the so called short term thinking for a long term problem.

  3. Robert In New Orleans says:

    I am glad that these dictatorships are falling, but I am pessimistic that the new regimes (democratic or otherwise) will be able to do anything that will make a real difference for these people in the long run. What I believe is that we are witnessing the very earliest stages of social disorder leading to governmental failure and civil/social collapse.

  4. If you were dictator of the world what laws would you enact to save the world?

    improve education of girls globally
    impose a carbon tax on carbon emitters, which will increase every year
    hike gas taxes in the US
    impose huge luxury taxes on gas guzzlers
    offer tax breaks to companies that encourage telecommuting
    invest all new taxes in sustainable energy infrastructure globally, with some percentage earmarked for research
    require community gardens every couple square miles in urban areas
    implement local barter social networks
    create an effective global food distribution system

    Would we cooperate or riot?

  5. K. Nockels says:

    The fix for agriculture is non-fossil fuel cropping. You can’t fix this problem by encouaging use of a non-renewable resouce that not only is getting more coastly but contributes to the cause of the problem of crop failure from increased unnatural disasters. It takes time to learn how to grow food sustainably, how to increase productivity through organic feed-ins, but to continue to promote fossil fuel farming, is just the same old quick fix that has lead to the unsustainable numbers needing to be fed now that Climate Change is impacting food supplies. The Green revolution did not end hunger it just made more people, now climate change will increase the number of people that are hungery and with the population around the world still growing, the quick fix will once again be the fix that’s choosen. You can talk all you want about having to have solutions that can be implemented right away because we are reaching a crisis point, but unless we acknowlege that the crisis is man-made and take some time to come up with solutions that can be carried on into the future that don’t once again contribute to the problem long term we have accomplished nothing. How will we be able ship food supplies around the world, that the poor can even afford when tanspotation costs raise to levels that mean shipping anything anywhere will cost way more as we hit the down slope of peak oil.There are farmers in India committing suiside everyday because even one season crop failure means that they can’t afford to plant another with the price of seed, chemical ferdilizers and pestisides going up every year, let alone the payment on the farm tractor you have to have to apply fossil fuel additives to your fields, when added to the cost of deseal to run the tractor it’s self they are in debt and ruined. This kind agriculture will not feed future’s children.

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    As usual, this misses the real point. The current and long term threat to Egyptian agriculture is sea level rise. Egypt is a combination of Chile and Bangladesh, a fertile river delta with a long thin coastal region along the Nile and nothing else. The delta is being inundated by sea level rise (and sinking as water is pumped out of wells).

    If you don’t address that, you are spiting into the wind.

    [JR: As usual? I’m letting this comment thru cause you’re a colleague. But until you’ve blogged on sea level rise half as much as I have, don’t suggest I’ve omitted something by not including SLR in every friggin’ post I write on a related subject. Heck, when you’ve done a quarter as many posts as I have on the urgent need to address climate change, then you point out here that failing to address the climate renders all solutions meaningless.

    This is a repost of a colleague’s piece and is perfectly reasonable. SLR is a contributing factor, no doubt, and I’ve got a piece coming up on that.]

  7. sarah says:

    oops. Today your homepage features an ad for the TransCanada Keystone pipeline. (advertising a pipeline??)

    That’s the one that will bring 900,000 barrels of oil/day from Alberta’s tar sands to Houston refineries.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Re Eli Rabett, from your link

    “Today, 30% of the land is less than a meter above sea level, and in some areas close to the Mediterranean coast, it is sinking by nearly a centimeter per year.”

    Uhh, a catastrophe in slow motion.

  9. Edward says:

    There is nothing you can do. Your efforts will only result in more Americans dead. In fact, the actions you propose will only increase the likelihood of the extinction of Homo Hubris.


  10. Edward says:

    What happened to the rest of my post?: See:
    “Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment” by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008” also by Rees There are 30% too many humans already. Population dynamics requires an overshoot be followed by an undershoot. 4 Billion must die. Better them than us.

    Drought under global warming: a review

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published.

    Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses. Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations. Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes. In some cases, all of that group died. On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived. We humans could go EXTINCT in 2051. The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food. If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.

  11. paulm says:

    World Feeding Itself Spurs Search for Answers: Eric Pooley and Phil Revzin

    Whether the world tips into agricultural catastrophe this year depends on the fate of the wheat on the North China Plain.

  12. paulm says:

    1 Prok I think you might be out by 45 yrs.

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    “That’s the one that will bring 900,000 barrels of oil/day from Alberta’s tar sands to Houston refineries.”

    That’s a project of the megalomaniac Koch who actively orchestrate the denial and attacks on the science, too.

  14. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Let’s remember that global food production, climate disruption & CO2 sequestration are inextricably linked via two global food policy options:

    1. Industrial & GE agriculture adds carbon to the atmosphere at every step of a product cycle that is proprietary, bundled, profit-driven & costs farmers up to 60% more than equally productive natural systems.

    2. In contrast, food production using natural systems can remove existing carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, as a benefit of “ecosystem services” that are provided free to mankind from the biosphere.
    Telling current events commentary ~ 18 minutes in 3 videos.

    Craig Mackintosh, media editor for the Permaculture Research Institute: “Vandana Shiva shares a lucid discussion on Monsanto’s inexplicable view of nature as the enemy of mankind, and their determination to sell us ‘liberation’ from it. Aside from being an impossible battle, it’s also a wholly misguided one, based on a self-interested, short-term-thinking profit mentality, rather than the much needed acceptance of, and cooperation with, biological realities we need to see instead.”

    Norwegian Oyvind Holmstad provides this after-link to a PBS interview with EO Wilson about his book Biophilia & the concept that experiencing the natural world may be necessary for full human gene expression. Remembering the “hard conversations” thread – parents can help their children establish a strong baseline via connections with natural systems & via engagement with earliest skills.

  15. Michael Tucker says:

    The long term prognosis for the Middle East is not good. Water security will be very difficult to ensure and it will make future agricultural development in Egypt extraordinarily difficult to sustain.

    “”In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil. The situation is alarming,” said Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last week, as she launched a Swiss and Swedish government-funded report for the EU.”

    “”Unless there is a technological breakthrough or a miraculous discovery, the Middle East will not escape a serious [water] shortage,” said Sundeep Waslekar, a researcher from the Strategic Foresight Group who wrote the report.”

    This is from:
    “What does the Arab world do when its water runs out?”

  16. David B. Benson says:

    I profoundly disagree with the tenor of this article. Instead, Egypt must become largely food self-sufficient removing its dependence upon national or international dole. It is possible by completely changing
    to provide assistance rather than acting as a subsidy for US producers.

  17. Paulm says:

    On local raidio here that restarunts were not serving tomatoes. Gees what …..Peak tomatoes!

    Produce Prices Peak

    Fast-food restaurants are running short on supply.  Subway stores in Fargo have now posted signs on their drive-thru menus warning customers they may not get that tomato slice on their cold-cut combos.

    As tough as our winter has been, we’re not the only ones suffering.  Weird winter weather has hit parts of the Americas pretty hard.  And now the Red River Valley is feeling it from the grocery store to the drive-thru lane.  

    Produce specialists say it’s the perfect storm.  Freezes in Florida, Arizona, even Mexico, and heavy rains in California have killed off huge amounts of crops. And the price of some veggies and fruits is skyrocketing. The hardest hit are bananas, tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers.  Growers have reported a 50 to 80 percent crop loss, doubling prices at the checkout.  Distributors would normally search for vegetables in other markets, but those places have been hit, too.

  18. Prokaryotes says:

    Climate change affecting food safety: researchers warn

    LOS ANGELES, Feb. 21 (Xinhua) — Climate change is already having an effect on the safety of the world’s food supplies, and unless action is taken, it’s only going to get worse, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reported on Monday.

    The warning came from several nationally known experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Economic Research Service, the Michigan State University and the University of California, Los Angeles, according to the release.

    The experts warned that food safety is already an issue and will worsen unless climate change is confronted, the release said.

    “Accelerating climate change is inevitable with implications for animal products and crops,” said Ewen Todd, a professor of advertising at Michigan State University. “At this point, the effects of climate change on food safety are poorly understood.”

    However, there are already a number of examples of climate change taking its toll on the world’s food supply, Todd said in remarks published by the AAAS.

    One is Vibrio, a pathogen typically found in warm ocean water which is now becoming more common in the north as water temperatures rise, said Todd, also a fellow of the AAAS.

    “It’s been moving further up the coast these past few years,” he said. “There was an outbreak of it near Alaska in 2005 when water temperature reached 15 degrees Celsius.”

    Todd also said that extreme weather – droughts and heavy rains – is having an impact on the world’s food supply. In some areas crops are being wiped out, resulting in higher prices and other issues.

    Drought and starvation can lead to mycotoxins which pose a health threat to humans, Todd said.

    “Mycotoxins are molds that can sometimes cause illness in humans,and where you have drought and starvation there can be a mycotoxin problem,” he said. “That’s because people will store their meager resources of crops for longer than they should.”

  19. Lewis C says:

    I too differ with the tenor of this article, but for a further variety of reasons.

    K Nockels is entirely correct to point out the folly of the proposal that more-of-the-same assistance to promote fossil-dependent agriculture will somehow produce a better result, particularly under climate destabilization and peak oil and rising sea-level and aquifer depletion and net Nile-flow decline and the 2010 termination of income from Egyptian oil exports.

    Raising soil fertility and moisture retention are critically important options for Egypt’s future, and they are about both sustainable agricultural practices and, under the requisite UN treaty, the application of biochar to farm soils at rates of around 10 Ts /ha. The establishment of salt-tolerant coppices as shelter-belts and storm-surge defences on the Nile Delta would go a long way to supplying the necessary feedstock for biochar production. According to ongoing trials worldwide, the biochar option is likely to raise farm yields by 50% to 150% – which would go a long way to restoring Egypt’s former capacity to export food supplies.

    In terms of America’s contribution to the easing of global food insecurity, the first consideration has to be that it stops playing “Pledge & Review” with the global climate negotiations, and instead accepts binding commitments under a UN treaty. There is no other means of achieving the requisite global co-operation in halting climate destabilization, and thereby halting the climatic destabilization of global agriculture.

    The second requirement is that it stops its practice of exporting subsidised grain to coincide with other nations’ harvests, thereby crushing local-market prices, driving small farmers out of business, and increasing dependency on imported foods, farm machinery and fertilizers.

    A third requirement is that it ends the practice of diverting food supplies to liquid fuel production and outlaws the diversion of farmland to biofuel feedstock production. The fact that it has failed to do so thus far, despite the worsening scientific prognosies over 20 years for the global decline of food production due to climate destabilization, is one of a variety of indicators of a myopic covert US policy of aiming to gain national advantage due to the weakening of other states by intensifying climate impacts.

    If it is ethical for the US to divert one third of its corn crop to ethanol, it would seem no less ethical for, say, China and the EU to buy up the other two thirds for their transport fuel needs, resulting in global food prices that would leave hundreds of millions to starve.

    The author, Jake Caldwell, Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress, needs to go back to the drawing board if he hopes to provide constructive policy advice.



  20. Steve Bloom says:

    I think Eli’s “as usual” (in #6 above) referred to a common problem with these sorts of analyses, not with this blog, although Rabbettese being what it is it was easy to conclude otherwise.

    On the substance, I agree with Eli that a post that seeks to discuss Egypt’s food supply problems in the context of “the midterm and long-term” and advocates for “a strong foundation for lasting and durable economic growth” really is missing the boat if it *entirely* neglects (as the post did, not even mentioning it as a subject for a follow-up) the complex of factors related to sea level rise, groundwater depletion and the dam. As things stand, in the long term these factors will more than cancel out any progress that can be made in the areas described in the post. Noting that neither of the other two linked CAP articles touched on them, perhaps a little internal consultation and education is in order.

    I look forward to seeing the follow-up post.

    [JR: Well, actually, the author (not a climate person per se) did mention SLR!]

  21. David B. Benson says:

    Lewis C @19 and Steve Bloom @20 provided comments pointing in the right direction. But the basic problem is that PL 480, providing immediate food aid from the US to elsewhere in the world, is manipulated by US producers in such a way that nothing else is done. It is too the US producers’s advantage to see to it that lots of people around the world are on a permanent food dole, unable to become self-sufficient.

    In contrast, look to Malawi’s recent successes in (near) food self-sufficiency; they did it themselves by practicing do what you do, not what you say. [Of course, this was much easier in Malawi than in Egypt.]

    What could the US do to help? Repeal PL 480.

  22. Robert Firth says:

    I grew up in a third-world country, and have seen first hand what David B. Benson describes. I saw shortsighted do-gooders dumping cheap food on the market, for “famine relief”. This deprives the local farmers of their livelihood, so next year there are fewer farmers, less home-grown food, more famine, and – of course – more “famine relief”. It is a vicious cycle and it should be stopped dead before it destroys more local agriculture.

  23. Gaythia Weis says:

    I strongly agree with the points made above by Eli, Steve Bloom and others regarding the central position that water resource issues need to play in any evaluation of food security for Egypt in the face of climate change.

    However, the paragraph that gives me the most concern is the one that starts with: “Our changing climate is feeding this uncertainty.” and ends with:
    “the prospects for the spring planting season” The public has a hard time sorting out weather, regional climate, and global climate. Pointing to short term things as examples of global warming only aggravates this. I understand that some global climate change advocates want to do this because they think it makes the issue seem up close and personal. In my opinion, it causes people to increase skepticism of global warming as soon as they experience a cold snap.