The Egyptian government is tackling the country's food production shortfall with a project to reclaim thousands of acres of agricultural land and increase food production.
Officials are currently forming an executive board comprising ministries, agricultural experts and businessmen, to oversee the "Close the Food Gap Project", Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation Salah Abdul Momen said February 28th.
The project will be implemented across five regions; el-Alamein and south al-Qattara Depression in Matrouh, al-Wadi al-Jadeed, Toshka and central Sinai, he said, and will continue indefinitely.
"The project falls within the government's general plan to reclaim a million acres of agricultural land," said Wael Desouki, an agricultural engineer and consultant with the State Land Use Planning Agency.
It aims to increase crop yields and achieve self-sufficiency for the markets, he told Al-Shorfa. It also plans to increase meat and dairy production by opening new livestock farms, including 75,000 poultry farms and 125,000 cattle, sheep and goat farms.
The project intends to reduce Egypt's reliance on importing essential food commodities and create thousands of jobs for Egyptian youth, Desouki said.
There are about 20 million acres of reclaimable agricultural land in Egypt, he said, predominantly along the northern coast and in the Sinai valleys.
The project is now under way, following intensive meetings among Ministry of Agriculture and Planning Agency representatives and a large group of specialised engineers and businessmen, Desouki said.
"As a first stage, a bank account was opened under the umbrella of the Ministry of Agriculture to cover the cost of the project, estimated at 100 billion Egyptian pounds ($14.8 billion)," he said.
Officials reached an initial agreement with a large group of Egyptian businessmen and Arab investors to proceed with the first steps of the project, he added.
Meanwhile, a committee made up of representatives from the Public Authority for Reconstruction Projects and Agricultural Development, and the ministries of agriculture and land reclamation, irrigation and water resources, defence, housing, finance and environmental affairs, has been formed to formulate conditions and standards -- agreeable to all parties -- that govern the project, he said.
Two parts of the project have been approved so far, one in Toshka and the other in North Sinai, he said. In these cases, land marked for reclamation will be leased to investors with contracts of up to 99 years to ensure both parties are guaranteed "the right of fair use".
Phase one will focus on bolstering Egypt's self-sufficiency in wheat production to reduce the import bill, given that Egypt currently imports about 11 million tonnes of wheat annually, while local wheat cultivation produces only 3.5 million tonnes, Desouki said.
The agriculture and finance ministries are conducting a comprehensive assessment of previously-leased agricultural land, said agricultural engineer Fakhri Atallah, an advisor at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Officials are re-appraising the land's rental value and correcting any inequities borne by lessees or the state, he said.
The move also comes at a time taxes on agricultural land are being reassessed due to new amendments to the tax system, Atallah said.
"Cases involving 35 land reclamation companies were already referred to the Ministry of Justice on account of irregularities that tainted their contract with the state, including [some in which] agricultural land was converted to residential or tourist areas, in violation of contract terms," he said.
Atallah said the cabinet approved, as a first step, the release of 700,000 acres for agricultural, livestock and poultry investment by individual investors, small companies and large investment firms.
"The Egyptian citizen has the opportunity to acquire tracts of these lands within a mechanism that ensures they are used for agriculture, whereby ownership only becomes fully vested after four years," he said.
Meanwhile, agricultural engineer Wadad Khaireddine, owner of agricultural land reclamation firm Al-Wadad, described government plans to increase the agricultural land base as an "ideal solution" to meet market needs, which are growing by the day because of the burgeoning population.
"Current plans must be accompanied by a comprehensive upgrade of the agricultural system, along with further reclamation of new land," she told Al-Shorfa.
"The new generation of agricultural engineers must exploit this rare opportunity by participating in the reclamation and modernisation process and making use of the scientific knowledge they have acquired," Khaireddine said.
For example, she told Al-Shorfa she will personally participate in a new project to plant Jatropha trees, which produce a rare type of oil that could be used as an alternative to diesel fuel.