Domestic agricultural crops in Egypt have traditionally met the needs of the market for grains, vegetables and fruits, but the overall health of the agricultural sector has declined in recent years.
The reduction in cultivated areas and the reluctance of farmers to work the land due to the high cost of land reclamation, especially desert land, are two factors among many cited by experts.
A report by the Sons of Land Association for Human Rights, published September 5th, revealed that about six million farmers living in 5,000 farming villages are suffering from severe poverty because of the decline in agriculture.
The report cited several reasons for the high poverty rate including significantly higher prices for fertilizer, from 37 to 150 Egyptian pounds per 50 kg, as well as for other crucial products such as pesticides and machinery. Another contributing factor is the interruption of irrigation water at the terminal ends of the canals, which rendered hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land arid.
The report noted that the Ministry of Agriculture's budget was increased in 2011 to 1.6 billion pounds, up from 659 million pounds in 2010.
Hosni al-Menoufi, director of the Office of Encroachment Monitoring at the Agricultural Research Centre, told Al-Shorfa that declining security conditions after the revolution and the absence of security officials had a negative impact on measuring agricultural land throughout the country.
He said there are two major types of damage to agricultural land. One is illegal construction which leads to the spread of slums. Another factor is the use of red soil found in these areas to manufacture red stones that are used for construction. Use of the red soil leads to the loss of soil fertility and renders the remaining land unusable for agriculture.
Menoufi said, "Failure to address this phenomenon quickly will lead to desertification in the next four decades, which will require rapid intervention by the Ministry of Agriculture and the police to stop these encroachments."
He said a law is being drafted that would criminalise encroachment on agricultural land.
Sana Abdul Ati, who works at the Ministry of Agriculture's Office for the Distribution of Fertilizers, said the ministry instituted some measures that would encourage a return to agriculture and support farmers to overcome the recent period of neglect.
Abdul Ati said measures include assistance to farmers who are unable to repay loans from the Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit, which includes more than 50,000 farmers. Another 17,000 farmers who are beneficiaries of agrarian reform will be forgiven their debts, valued at 11 million pounds, for mortgage payments on land belonging to the Agrarian Reform Council.
Several political parties announced their political and economic development programs, and those address the problem of agricultural lands.
Majed Shaker, a representative from the Tanmiya and Inma Party, said, "The party's political and economic programme stressed the need for urgent land reclamation and cultivation, especially in the Sinai area through the distribution of land to small-scale farmers. There should be tighter oversight so the same mistakes of the previous regime are not repeated where land was allocated for agriculture but not used for its original purpose."
He told Al-Shorfa the party has a plan to expand populated areas and replicate it throughout the provinces where populated areas do not exceed 10%. He also referred to an agricultural plan that would make use of half of the desert over the next decade.
Salah Youssef, the Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, said during the celebration of Egyptian Farmer Day in Cairo Stadium on September 9th that he commissioned Major-General Ibrahim al-Ajami, head of the General Authority for Agricultural Reconstruction and Development, to conduct an inventory of all land in the Sinai, Tushki, and the new areas as a prelude to private ownership. An estimated 50,000 Egyptian farmers attended the event.
The minister said the new rules would give priority to residents of the province and to young graduates to acquire these lands. He also announced the Agricultural Research Centre would designate one million acres of land for reclamation and give priority to farmers and veterinarians. The ministry is working to increase the production of cotton, which used to represent 2% of national production, Youssef said.
Faisal al-Maneh, an agriculture student at Cairo University, said after the revolution some college students established the National Association to Combat Desertification, an association that includes students from agricultural colleges and academics. The group seeks to collaborate with the Ministry of Agriculture to encourage Egyptian youth to reclaim agricultural land and combat desertification.
He said, "The agricultural areas have started to erode and the actual effects have begun to appear. The first was the wheat crisis that Egypt witnessed in the past year, which forced the government to buy wheat from Russia and other countries while it is possible to reach self-sufficiency to a significant level."
Al-Maneh said the association is in contact with the ministry, and the first stages of co- operation have begun with a review of projects that students submitted under the supervision of academics to set timetables for their implementation.