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Food security is national security
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 05 - 2009

Nader Noureddin* argues that Egypt needs a new healthy agricultural policy that prioritises poverty reduction and food security
Prices for commodities are currently dropping mainly on the back of favourable crop prospects, but also because of a global economic slowdown. This will mean a cutback in cultivation, followed by reduced harvesting in major food- exporting countries. Given the fact that grain stocks remain low, this scenario could lead to another round of record food prices next year: a catastrophe for millions, with little money and no credit to face a new crisis.
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf cautioned at the end of 2008, "the food crisis is not over and the global financial crisis should not make us forget the food crisis." Two months later, in mid- February 2009, the FAO's Crop Prospects and Food Situation report indicated a reduction in global cereal output in 2009 compared to the 2008 record. Smaller plantations and adverse weather look likely to cause even lower grain output by most of the world's major producers. Further, lower prices, down more than 50 per cent from prices a year earlier and higher input costs, along with a forecast world cereal carryover of 496 million metric tonnes going into this season, resulted in a reduction of planted areas. Mafa Chipeta, sub-regional FAO coordinator for Eastern Africa, warned that "food should be a national security issue in African and developing countries." To develop a sustainable response, he said, countries need to produce more, not import more food.
Accordingly, we should draw out a new strategy for food production policy in Egypt. This policy should develop a formula whereby we balance between what we produce and what we need to eat. Egypt should be producing more wheat, corn, soybean and sunflower seeds, as well as sugar crops especially sugar beet, Egyptian fava beans, lentils and cotton. In the meantime, we should reduce the areas planted with rice to a maximum of 1.2 million feddans from 2.2 million feddans, as was the case last season. We should also cut down on the cultivation of vegetables targeted for exports, especially given the current global financial climate, as well as alfalfa.
Further, the new policy should encourage greater investments in the agricultural sector, especially in rural and sub-rural areas. This ought to help reduce poverty by improving prospects for Egypt's poorest. It will also help prevent rural-urban migration, a phenomenon which is currently on the rise. In the meantime, the use of improved seeds to increase agricultural output and to boost farmers' income is much needed. Traditional local seeds have deteriorated in quality as they have become infected by various types of pests and because they compete for nutrition with grasses which grow heavily alongside the crops.
Moreover, the government should focus on subsidising agricultural inputs such as fertilisers, improved seeds and pesticides rather than end products such as grains. A stable commodities market is also needed for those crops because the current market does not reward good production.
Crops to be used in producing bio-fuels should not be cultivated in any fertile or arable land, nor should they be irrigated with good quality water. Bio-fuel crops should only be cultivated in saline, alkaline and problematic soils that are not suitable for cultivating regular crops. They should be irrigated with recycled, treated wastewater or even with ultra-saline water. The oases of the Western Desert, the Northern Coast and both banks of the Suez Canal are all lands where saline seeps are very high; these could be ideal locations for the plantation of bio-fuel crops.
* The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University.

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