The Food Gap

The Food Gap

In 1960 Egypt was self-sufficient in almost all basic food commodities, with the exception of wheat, of which the country had a self-sufficiency ratio (domestic production in relation to consumption) of 70 percent. The self-sufficiency ratio declined dramatically for most products during the 1970s and 1980s, and economists began to speak of a serious food gap in Egypt. Food security, in the sense of adequate production and provision of food to consumers at relatively low prices, also became a linchpin of agricultural and development policies.

Food gap data were difficult to ascertain, especially because public-sector food imports often bypassed customs. By the end of the 1980s, the self-sufficiency ratio was only around 20 percent for wheat, lentils, and edible oil. The major basic staple for which Egypt did not rely on external supply sources was rice. The country also produced most of the poultry and eggs it consumed. On the whole, it imported more than one-half of the food consumed, and food imports made up about one-quarter of total imports. Meanwhile, agricultural exports, mainly cotton, were declining, and Egypt was transformed from a net agricultural exporter to a net importer. Most worrisome, both financially and politically, was the wheat gap: wheat was the basic staple of the Egyptian diet. Some of the external wheat supply came in the form of aid, especially from the United States, which donated about 10 percent to 20 percent of wheat consumed. But food aid was not a secure source because of the volatility of politics, and, in any case, the share of food aid dropped as the country's consumption grew.

Moreover, food subsidies to consumers imposed severe strains on the budget deficit. The debt-ridden government faced difficulties finding creditors to finance food imports, and rising world food commodity prices may have added as much as US$600 million to wheat imports alone in 1989. Food shortages were reported in 1988 and 1989, including such basic items as tea, sugar, and oil.

The drop in food self-sufficiency was attributed, on the demand side, to the rising demand caused by high rates of population growth, the rapid rise of incomes in the 1970s, and subsidized prices, and, on the supply side, to the slow growth of agricultural yields. Egyptians consumed annually less than 110 kilograms per capita of wheat in 1960. In the 1980s, the wheat supply was enough to provide 175 to 200 kilograms per capita, compared with a world average of less than 60 to 75 kilograms per capita. Some of this went to chicken and cattle feed because the low prices made it economical for farmers and households to substitute wheat for other fodder.

The silver lining of this cloudy picture was the marked improvement in the average Egyptian diet. Daily food consumption increased from 2,307 calories per capita in the period 1961 to 1963, to 3,313 calories per capita from 1984 to 1986, and from 62.5 grams per capita of protein to 81.1 grams per capita over the same period. These averages put the Egyptian diet directly below that of developed countries. But not all segments of the population benefited to the same extent. For example, a sample survey of 6,300 urban and rural families in FY 1981 found that the daily per capita caloric intake was 1,500 for the lowest 17 percent and more than 3,500 for the highest 18 percent; the distribution of protein intake was even more skewed. A 1986 study done for the United Nations International Labour Organisation recommended that, to avoid further deterioration of the diet of the poor, the prices of basic staples should not be raised.

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