Egypt, an African nation of more than 106 million people, finds itself at the heart of two of the largest and most pressing challenges the world is facing today – the food and climate crises.
It is soon to host UN-led climate negotiations, and when world leaders descend on the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh next month they’ll be discussing the planet’s future in a nation struggling with chronic water shortages and where extreme weather is already threatening agricultural productivity. Egypt has also become a poster child for the dysfunctions of a global food system that forces many countries into a “double dependence” – heavily reliant on a few staple imports but also hostage to a handful of exporters to deliver those essential goods.
Thanks to generous government subsidies, the bread-loving country is the world’s largest importer of wheat: Egyptians on average consume 146 kilos of wheat products every year, more than double the global average, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
With domestic production of around 9 million metric tons insufficient to meet demand, it imports 12-13 million tons annually. For the past five years, 82% of its wheat came from two major exporters, Russia and Ukraine, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year and commodity prices – which were already rising even before the war – have spiked, it hasn’t just been the Egyptian government feeling the pinch: Interviews conducted by The New Humanitarian over the last few months with ordinary consumers, aid workers, and experts show cash-trapped households are cutting back on what and how much they eat, raising concerns about rising levels of hunger.
Amira* lost her husband to COVID-19, and her job to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Two years on, the 35-year-old former textile factory worker in the capital, Cairo, has taken to drinking water to curb her hunger and ensure there’s enough food for her four children.
She gets by doing odd jobs such as cleaning homes, which brings in about 50 Egyptian pounds (about $2.54) a day. The income is unstable, and she rarely works more than 10 days a month. It’s nowhere near enough to feed her family, particularly since food prices have risen rapidly. A kilo of rice, which cost five pounds a year ago, is now 18 pounds.
“My husband left me early, and I had to take on a responsibility greater than my age,” Amira told The New Humanitarian. “I only wish I could provide for the basic needs of my children, but I am not worried about the future. It’s in the hands of God.”
Samra*, a 48-year-old farm worker in Fayoum Governorate, a few hours’ drive to the south, is facing similar battles. Her daily wage has been stagnating at 40 pounds since 2016, but a kilo of meat is now nearly four times as expensive as two years ago – 190 pounds compared to 50.
“I only wish I could provide for the basic needs of my children, but I am not worried about the future. It’s in the hands of God.”
Worse, drought and soil erosion have slashed crop yields in her village, which means there’s less work for her. It has been 10 months since she and her family have eaten any meat.
Both Amira and Samra are part of the Egyptian government’s Tamween programme, which provides subsidised food, including bread. It’s a lifeline, but it’s not enough.
Samra receives five bottles of oil, five bags of rice, and five packages of pasta every month through the programme, but the pasta is finished after two dinners and they scramble to find food for the rest of the month.
“Without this assistance, we would have been left without food… but it is insufficient,” she said. “Ours is a vast family.”
Diets and subsidies need to change
Tamween is a key component of Egypt’s social safety net. It includes the baladi bread subsidy, whereby two in three Egyptians receive five loaves of bread every day at a price that has changed little since the 1980s – the government bears about 90% of the production cost.
However, the market volatility for wheat means the costs of such subsidies are soaring.
The government’s $3 billion annual spend on wheat imports before the war in Ukraine could now be almost double, according to a recent analysis by the Washington DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), co-authored by senior research fellow David Laborde.
Overhauling the subsidies, which experts have criticised as poorly targeted, would improve Egypt’s balance sheet but would be politically explosive in a country with a history of food-related unrest, and where the importance of bread is underlined by the fact that the word for it – eish – also means “living” in Arabic.
Even before the conflict, Egypt’s finances were in trouble. The global pandemic and the subsequent supply chain crunch affected the import-dependent nation’s tourism, currency, economy, and food stocks, pushing inflation to 14.6% in August. This was the highest level in four years, and a significant jump from 5.7% a year ago.
According to the Global Hunger Index, food insecurity levels in Egypt – regarded as a lower middle-income country – have been moderate for the past two decades. The index ranks it 56 out of 116 countries. Figures from the latest UN report on global hunger also showed they haven’t changed dramatically over the past few years – 7.1% in 2019-2021 compared to 8.4% in 2014-2016.
Yet it seems this hunger data is still to catch up with the harsh reality of what Egyptians are already facing today.
“What’s happening right now – and what is also creating social pressure – is people have to spend much more money on food,” Laborde told The New Humanitarian. “Food is still available, but they have to sacrifice other parts of their consumption bundle.” This means hunger may now be rising in some of the poorer populations, he added.
Shorouk Mostafa, founder of the Mastoura Initiative, a youth-led effort providing monthly meals, healthcare, and medicine to vulnerable communities in the Greater Cairo area, agreed.
There is food in the stores, but pandemic-induced job losses mean “a large number of Egyptians and refugees cannot afford… these basic necessities”, she said.
“There’s so much potential improvement that can be done on the demand side, about how much you eat, how much you waste, what you eat.”
Egypt hosts more than nine million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, most of them from
Sudan (4 million), Syria (1.5 million), Yemen (1 million), and Libya (1 million), according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
In Shubra Al-Khaimah, Egypt’s fourth-largest city, a local community development association said the number of people it’s providing with food aid has grown by 70% since the start of the pandemic.
“Some people who used to volunteer and donate food or money to us have lost their jobs and now need our assistance,” the organisation’s founder, Magda Shaarawy, told The New Humanitarian.
There’s little danger yet of Egypt running out of wheat stocks, experts say, but it has limited options. The government has encouraged local farmers to grow more wheat and offered them higher prices, but boosting domestic production dramatically is challenging because of water scarcity, and because the limited arable land is being further squeezed by rapid urbanisation to accommodate a fast-growing population.
Diversifying Egypt’s food suppliers beyond the Black Sea producers would be difficult and expensive too, but Laborde said the country could “rethink the type of diets they have and how some of their policies are shaping that”.
This means reducing the high consumption of wheat and the waste of bread, and using different flour such as barley. These moves would also address the high levels of overweightness and obesity among Egyptian adults, experts say.
“There’s so much potential improvement that can be done on the demand side, about how much you eat, how much you waste, what you eat,” said Laborde.
Hala Barakat, an Egyptian member of the coordination committee of the CSIPM, which represents small-scale farmers and grassroots groups working on food issues at the UN, said the government should reconsider how, where, and to whom the subsidies are provided to make them more effective.
“When you look at what is subsidised, the four main things are wheat, sugar, rice, and oil. It means that people will eat these more,” she said, adding that giving cash to wives or mothers – and flour instead of loaves – could also ensure healthier diets.
Climate changes put farmers under pressure
The supply side needs to adapt too because Egypt’s food production is already suffering from unpredictable weather patterns.
Khaled*, who lives in the same village in Fayoum Governorate as Samra, used to earn enough as a farm worker to feed his five children. But land degradation and drought forced local landowners to abandon farming about a decade ago. He was put out of work and three of his children had to leave school to find jobs.
“Sometimes we consume one meal each day, and other times we go the whole day without eating,” 45-year-old Khaled told The New Humanitarian. “I cannot recall the last time I ate beef or poultry.”
For Ammar* in Ismailia Governorate, an agricultural heartland on the west bank of the Suez Canal, the woes are more recent. A heat wave devastated the 36-year-old farmer’s mangoes last year. Instead of the usual yield of 10 tons per acre, he got only half a ton per acre.
“It was a catastrophe,” Ammar told The New Humanitarian. “We rely on the harvest to sustain my children, pay school fees and private lessons, and pay off the debts I incurred to take care of the farm.”
An assessment by a scientific committee appointed by the Minister of Agriculture blamed weather and climate variables for the loss of more than 120,000 acres of mangoes last year.
Olive production – in the world’s second biggest producer of table olives after the EU – also fell by about 60-80%during the 2021 harvest season because of changing weather patterns due to climate change, the government-run Agricultural Research Center told local media.
“Sometimes we consume one meal each day, and other times we go the whole day without eating.”
Experts have long warned that climate change, in particular rising temperatures, “could severely damage [Egypt’s] agricultural productivity if no adaptation measures are taken”, with predicted production falls of 11% in rice, 28% in soybeans, 19% in corn, and 20% in barley by 2050.
The ongoing dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – Africa’s largest hydropower project – only adds further uncertainty to Egypt’s future food production.
Located at the head of the Nile River, a key source of irrigation, the dam could reduce water supplies to Egypt by more than a third, cause agricultural losses of up to $51 billion, and fuel increased migration, experts from the University of Southern California recently warned.
Saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise could also ruin 40% of the fertile but low-lying Nile Delta – a key cropping area – between 2040 and 2050, a study last year showed.
Kamal Shaltout, plant environment professor at Tanta University, said rising temperatures have already caused a decrease in yields of basic crops such as wheat, potatoes, corn, sugar beets, and cotton. He called for stronger Egyptian government policies, including more funding for agricultural research and growing crops that require less water.
Beyond food production, climate change will dramatically alter the social and economic landscape in many parts of Egypt, said Adel Motamad, professor of environmental geography at Assiut University.
The deteriorating condition of farmlands and the high costs of maintaining them – combined with low productivity and financial returns – have already prompted residents in Fayoum Governorate to migrate to other parts of Egypt and even to Europe, and such movements are likely to increase in the future, he said.
(*Due to fears for their safety, these Interviewees requested only their first names be published.)
Thin Lei Win reported from Rome. Eman Mounir reported from Cairo. Edited by Andrew Gully.