A story about wheat in Egypt Achieving sustainable wheat self-sufficiency in Egypt. ZEF Doctoral Research by Ahmed Abdalla

Ahmed Abdalla is a doctoral student at ZEF working in the Right Livelihood College (RLC) Programme funded by the DAAD.

Ahmed is conducting his field research in his home country Egypt, which is the third most populated country in Africa and has a population of about 104 million. Most Egyptians live on only 7% of the country’s area, mainly along the Nile River.

Millions of Egyptian smallholders produce wheat as their livelihood.

Egypt is facing critical challenges regarding rapid population growth, poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and climate change. It is also involved in a water conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) built by Ethiopia on the upper course of the River Nile.

Wheat is considered the most important crop in Egypt, not only as a staple food, but also as a strategic and political commodity. Most Egyptians depend on wheat for their daily intake in form of subsidized bread, whereas millions of smallholders produce wheat as their livelihood.

Wheat-based food provides on average one-third of the daily caloric intake and about 45% of protein intake by Egyptians. Wheat occupies about 33% of the total crop area, mainly produced by smallholders in the River Nile delta in the country’s Mediterranean north, and upstream along the River Nile.

Yet Egypt remains the world's largest wheat importer, with only half of its national consumption met by domestic production.

Therefore, in 2015 the Government of Egypt issued its “Sustainable Development Strategy”, which includes the goal to achieve more than 80% of wheat consumption self-sufficiency by 2030. Given the fast- growing population, anticipated future water shortages, soil degradation and climate change constraints, it is unclear how this goal can be reached in a sustainable manner.

The project “Transition towards sustainable agriculture: The case of wheat-based production systems in Egypt” is part of the Right Livelihood College (RLC) Programme at ZEF. This doctoral research project is carried out in close collaboration with the Heliopolis University in Cairo and the Egyptian NGO SEKEM, which received the Right Livelihood Award, the “Alternative Nobel Prize”, in 2003.

Through a case study in the River Nile delta, this research aims to contribute to a more sustainable agriculture in Egypt by identifying the most important internal and external drivers affecting smallholder wheat production and by addressing the most pressing problems of smallholders. The project tries to support the opportunities and face the challenges in attaining wheat self-sufficiency in Egypt in a sustainable manner from a smallholder’s perspective.

Six months of empirical field research was carried out in 2020/21, in El Mahmodya, Kafr Eldawar, Aboelmatamier, and Nubaria, all districts in the Beheira Governorate in the River Nile delta, south of Alexandria.

The research included interviews with 246 wheat-producing smallholders, expert interviews and participatory observation. Preliminary findings show that from a wheat-growing smallholder’s perspective, there has been a significant drop in governmental support such as subsidized inputs and technical supply in the previous two decades.

To farmers, dependence on a fluctuating private market is jeopardizing wheat cultivation. Many have reduced their production of wheat and focused on more profitable cash crops. However, cultivating cash crops such as clover needs more water, land and fertilizers. Some farmers have continued growing wheat only for their own household’s consumption.

In addition, high prices of fertilizers, such as potassium, have negatively impacted the quality and quantity of wheat yields.

As a result, the total area under wheat production has declined in Egypt.
Productivity is also affected by inadequate irrigation systems and inappropriate crop rotation.

The data is currently being analyzed and synthesized in detail.

ZEF doctoral student Ahmed Abdalla talking to a farmer about the challenges of wheat cultivation.

This research project is part of the Right Livelihood College Programme (RLC) which is funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and fiat panis and supported by ZEF.

Contact: s5adabda@uni-bonn.de

Photos: private (A. Abdalla and others)

Produced by ZEF-PR