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The wheat crisis in the Arab world is exemplified by Egypt 

Labourer works in a wheat mill on March 21, 2022 [SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images]
Labourer works in a wheat mill on March 21, 2022 [SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images]

The economic repercussions of Russia's war against Ukraine are becoming more obvious as the bombing continues. The two countries are the world's largest suppliers of a number of essential commodities, including wheat and sunflower oil.

The Arab countries are among the most negatively affected by this war. Concerns about food shortages have grown since Russia and Ukraine announced officially that they were stopping wheat exports. Dramatic rises in wheat prices have added to the woes of countries already suffering from price hikes of basic commodities and high unemployment.

Russia and Ukraine produce about a quarter of the world's wheat, and the Arab countries in particularly depend on this. Egypt is the world's top wheat importer, and nearly 70 per cent of its wheat came from Russia and Ukraine in 2019. It is seriously concerned about the implications of the war and possible wheat shortages.

The Egyptian authorities claim that there is enough wheat in storage to last five months, but restrictions have been imposed and laws introduced to deal with this issue, which suggests that this may not actually be the case. Why, though, is Egypt facing this crisis?

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Former Egyptian Minister of Agriculture, Ahmed El-Leithy, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that, "In 40 years, planting wheat has never been a priority for the Egyptian government." He explained that only two agriculture ministers have thought about working to become self-sufficient in wheat, but the governments did not give them the opportunities to do so.

El-Leithy said that Egypt has enough agricultural land and enough water to grow its own wheat, but annual production has fallen "due to the obstacles in the way of self-sufficiency." He pointed out, for example, that the government pays more for imported wheat than home-grown wheat, leaving Egyptian farmers frustrated that they can't make enough to live on.

Last month, the Egyptian authorities decided to implement the compulsory purchase of wheat from local farmers at 5,900 Egyptian pounds ($318.36) per ton; the international price was $390.50 per ton. Al Jazeera has since reported the Egyptian prime minister as saying that the international price recorded a dramatic rise to $479 per ton, but the government did not change the local price, even though general price increases have affected almost all commodities and equipment used for farming. The costs related to planting and growing wheat have increased, but the price that the government pays for the end product does not reflect this fact.

According to the Egyptian media, a number of members of parliament have accused the government of supporting international farmers at the expense of Egyptian farmers. The MPs warned that, in the light of such a gloomy reality, Egyptian farmers may not plant wheat next year. Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture show that the area of farms used to grow wheat has already decreased steadily since the 1950s. This may well exacerbate the decline.

Aside from turning its back on local farmers, who produce wheat of a better quality than that which is imported, the Egyptian government also imports wheat which is not even suitable for animal feed. Agriculture engineer Jalal Al-Bashouti is the director of one of the major milling companies in Egypt. He told Al-Masry Al-Youm that an Egyptian official refused to accept a shipment of rotten wheat from Ukraine in 2009, but the government replaced the official with another who accepted the shipment, which was unfit for human consumption. That, it seems, has been the mentality of successive governments, and perhaps reflects the nature of the contractual relationship between Cairo and Kyiv.

READ: India prepares to export wheat to Egypt as fears grow Ukraine conflict will worsen food crisis

Local experts believe that Egypt can deal with the problems hindering the production of enough wheat in the country, because such problems are not related to the Egyptian farmers, Egyptian seeds, Egyptian expertise and Egyptian weather and resources. They are down to the lack of political will. Since the time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has been governed by authoritarian regimes which obey the diktats of their masters who want the biggest Arab country to depend on them for its food.

"Is it reasonable that we have the Sinai Peninsula and Al-Salam Canal, which diverts enough water from the River Nile, and yet we do not plant more than 60,000 acres?" asked Ali Sayyid Abul Majd, the Professor of Agriculture Engineering at Al-Mansoura University. "Why do we develop tourism villages and neglect planting wheat?"

When the Egyptian parliament asked Hosni Mubarak's Agriculture Minister, Amin Abaza, in 2009 to buy wheat from Egyptian farmers, he said, "We do not have enough money to buy it and we do not have funds to build silos to store it." Again, this suggests that Egyptian dictators serve their foreign masters more than their own people. Self-sufficiency has never been on Cairo's agenda.

Abdul Tawwab Barakat, an adviser of a former minister of supplies, told Al Jazeera Net a few days ago that Egypt imports 12.5 million tons of wheat and this is expected to rise to 14 million next year. "Importing such a strategic commodity from abroad means that your political will is indebted to the supplier countries," he explained. "Food security in Egypt is in danger because the country which does not own its food does not own its decisions."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to bread shortages across parts of the Arab world - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to bread shortages across parts of the Arab world – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Egyptian agriculture expert Jamal Siyam blamed the government for the decline in wheat production because it stopped supporting local farmers and agriculture research centres. Farmers, he pointed out, have turned to growing food for livestock instead of food for people. The late Egyptian economist Hamdy Abdul Azim told Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2009 that successive Egyptian governments paid no attention to the danger of depending on imported wheat. "Since the signing of [the Camp David peace treaty with Israel] and according to [US] Public Law 480, which regulates the distribution of US wheat assistance to friendly countries, Egyptian governments have never thought of planting wheat despite having all that is necessary to do so… We do not plant wheat because we are not ready to resist American pressure."

A paper published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in 1987 said: "The effort to use food as a weapon became more pronounced after 1969, as 'food aid programmes were conspicuously recast to serve US military and security objectives, first in South-East Asia and then in the Middle East.'… After the US defeat in Indochina, food shipments were rerouted to the Middle East, and Egypt emerged as the largest recipient of PL 480 allocations, receiving five times more than any other country."

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Egypt must have the US wheat allocations, which is why it has been ignoring the need for its own farmers to grow wheat. When the population increased and US wheat could not meet Egypt's needs, the government did not encourage local farmers to step in and fill the gap. Instead it turned to international markets such as Ukraine, Russia and Romania to import wheat.

It is probable that his plan to become self-sufficient in both food and weapons was one of the reasons why the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. "We want to support our farmers, build silos, buy their wheat produce, and make our own food and arms," he told journalists during a press conference held deliberately on a wheat farm.

Morsi was thinking ahead about how to cope with the sort of international crisis that is being faced now, and planned to free Egypt from the hands of the colonial powers. The deep state, however, wanted to maintain the priority given to its masters in the White House and the West. Egypt is not alone in the Middle East in this respect; it exemplifies what is happening all over the region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEgyptEurope & RussiaOpinionRussiaUkraine
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