What makes nutrient-rich food so hard to access in Egypt? As covid-19 brought scenes of mass food stockpiling and supply chain disruptions, food security came into greater focus than before. But Egypt’s food security challenges pre-date covid, notes a recently published FAO report (pdf) looking at food security and nutrition in Arab states. Today, we look at the underlying stressors — including land and water scarcity, food import dependency, rapid population growth, and unhealthy changes to diets from urbanization — that strain our food system, FAO says.
Food security boils down to two factors: Quality and supply. FAO defines food security as having regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and a healthy life. Assessing food security means tracking the availability and accessibility of nutritious food, along with the stability of a country’s food system, according to a 2020 study. Our food system faces threats from systemic stressors (long-term pressures, like our ballooning population) and shocks (short-term deviations from long-term trends, like a major flood or disease outbreak), FAO says.
Our diets are calorie-high — but nutrient-deficient. So they’re not really all that secure. FAO identifies malnutrition as a serious problem for Egypt. While an energy-sufficient diet is affordable for everyone, 45.4% of the Egyptian population can’t afford a nutrient-adequate diet and a whopping 84.8% can’t afford a healthy diet, the FAO estimates. That leads to health problems like obesity, undernourishment and anaemia — and hefty associated costs, the FAO report tells us.
And like much of MENA, Egypt doesn’t score brilliantly on overall food system sustainability: The FAO study scores countries on food sustainability, with 0 being the lowest and 1 the highest. Egypt gets a score of 0.32, compared to 0.38 for Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, 0.52 for the UAE, and 0.70 for the US. The assessment metrics are related to consumption and demand (things like consumer income, demographics, and urbanization), production and supply (which are impacted by agricultural factors and climate change), and trade.
Our food production is inherently fragile thanks to stressors like agricultural land scarcity: Egypt’s arable land stood at 2.9% in 2018, below the MENA average of 4.6%, according to World Bank data. Soil productivity in most of the northeast Nile Delta had decreased at that point by over 45% in 35 years — largely because of unsustainable farming practices, a 2018 IAEA report noted.
And water scarcity: The Nile provides Egypt with an estimated 96% of our total renewable water resources, and some 79% of this is funnelled into agriculture — at least in part because of cropping intensity and inefficient water use, a 2019 academic study (pdf) notes. By 2025, grain productivity is expected to decrease by 11% compared to 1995, thanks to irrigation water scarcity, it adds. Continued climate change, population growth, and the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will exacerbate these challenges.
Our reliance on imports of food staples means any disruption to global flows could threaten our food security, says FAO. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, with the staple providing one–third of our calories and 45% of our protein, the report notes. Global wheat prices have spiraled this year, reaching a new 10-year high as a combination of poor weather, surging fertilizer prices and export tariffs squeeze supply. As international tenders deliver the steepest prices in at least five years, the government is preparing to start reducing bread subsidies to soften the impact on the state budget.
And rising food prices have led to a particularly sharp spike in Egypt’s inflation: Food prices have been driving inflation throughout 2021, here as in many global markets. Annual headline inflation rose to 6.6% in September, a 20-month high, while food and beverage prices rose 13.1%, mainly off the back of a 38.1% increase in the price of vegetables. And although inflation cooled in October, the recent 50% hike in fertilizer prices is expected to be passed on by farmers to consumers, leading to yet higher food costs down the line.
Many ingredients vital for a healthy diet may be sent overseas, FAO adds. “Countries with food security and nutrition challenges often export the main ingredients of a healthy diet (fruits, vegetables and fish) and import refined cereals, fats and sugar, core ingredients for unhealthy diets,” the report says. Food represented 13% of Egypt’s non-oil exports as of 2020 — making it our third-largest non-oil export, the Egyptian Export Council for Food Industries announced this year. Major food exports include potatoes and fresh fruit, especially citrus.
And high levels of food waste means much of what is available doesn’t get eaten: Egypt’s fruit and vegetable food waste was expected to reach 45-55% of production annually, noted a 2015 FAO project outline. Throughout the MENA region, food is regularly wasted by both restaurants and households, making it the single largest component of landfill, the FAO report says.
Though our smartcard system gets props from FAO for reducing food waste: Egypt is among the countries stepping up efforts to reduce food waste, FAO notes. Our smartcard system covers some 80% of the population and limits the maximum amount of subsidized bread each family member can buy, which has resulted in a “significant drop” in loaves discarded, it adds.
Urbanization is creating a demand for less healthy food: Throughout MENA, there’s a clear link between increased urbanization and a shift away from seasonal diets rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and towards diets high in refined cereals, fat, sugar, and — income permitting — meat, the FAO report tells us. Egypt’s annual urban growth rate stood at 2% as of 2020, according to World Bank data. This means Egyptian cities have to accommodate almost 1 mn new citizens every year, with the size of our urban population projected to exceed the rural population by 2041, GIZ-supported news site Urbanet reports.
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