A Grain of Truth

Earlier this week I took a trip to Sharqeya province, an agricultural area in the Nile Delta, for a report I'm working on about the wheat harvest. I had hoped to talk to wheat farmers, traders and granary workers to get a better idea of what's actually going on with the harvest. Instead, the only definite conclusion I drew from the trip is that Egypt's farmers and Egypt's government are living in parallel universes. That, or one group is lying.

Egypt is primarily a country of small farmers--the average holding is about the size of a regulation football pitch. Among the many results of this phenomenon is that it's nearly impossible to make accurate predictions about how large the wheat harvest will be.

In countries like Russia or the United States, where huge mono-crop farms are the norm, you can look at satellite images, see how many thousand hectares are planted with wheat, multiply that by average yields in years with similar climactic conditions, and come up with a pretty solid guess.

Here in Egypt, you have a patchwork of tiny little plots, each subdivided between grain, vegetables and animal fodder. The only way to get a real figure would be to go plot-by-plot across the whole country. Of course, nobody's doing that, so predictions about the harvest often have more to do with politics than hectares under cultivation.

There's no way to accurately gauge the harvest until it comes in. Actually, as it happens,  there's not really a way to accurately gauge the yield even after harvest; the government pays above-market prices for local wheat, so traders turn an easy profit by mixing in cheap imported wheat with the local wheat they sell. Since the imported wheat is better quality, and since the government has a vested interest in inflating the domestic crop yield, it's a pretty cozy set up for all involved.

But I digress.

This year's predictions varied even more widely than usual. The government is confidently proclaiming that this will be a record-breaking harvest, at 9.5 million tones. If they can convince the public they've led the country to new heights in the production of Egypt's staple food, the ruling party will score a big political win.

Meanwhile, independent observers are putting forward figures of around 6 or 7 million tonnes. If these lower figures are accurate, it's not necessarily a huge deal.  A low harvest won't automatically translate into a food crisis. If Egypt can cough up the money, there will be plenty of Black Sea wheat on the market at about the time supplies would run out for the subsidized bread program. They would't need much more than a 1.5 billion dollars worth of wheat imports to tide them over to the end of the year. Yes, Egypt is broke, but that's still pretty do-able.

But, if those lower figures are correct, it would mean the government is lying about the availability of a vital food staple. It also means that key ministries, including agriculture and supply, are letting this crucial numbers be politicized and falsified.

Among the farmers that I spoke with, all but one said yields were lower than last year; the other guy said they were about they same. Diesel, which was predicted to be a problems, seems not to have been, at least in Sharqeya (also, coincidentally, President Morsi's home province). Fertilizer, however, was an issue, despite government claims that everything had gone perfectly smoothly. According to farmers I spoke to, the government-affiliated cooperatives, which are supposed to provide cheap fertilizers,  didn't have enough available, leaving cash-strapped farmers to either buy it dear on the open market or go without.

But the most striking moments of the day came when I visited two state owned granaries. One farmer told me that his local granary failed to open on time, forcing him to keep his threshed and bagged grain sitting in the field. (Which I could see with my own eyes). Hearing that, I decided to swing by the granary, where the supervisor (a public employee) cheerfully informed me that far from being late, renovations to the granary were two months ahead of schedule.

Mind you, the wheat harvest is nearly over, and Egypt has about 7,000 years of experience to draw on in predicting when the wheat harvest will come. Workmen were still running around the parking-garage like structure. The metal plate for the grain scale was leaned up against a wall. This was Monday, and he informed me that "we will be open Wednesday, inshallah, or actually, Saturday," and everything was going swimmingly. I tried pointing out that the harvest started almost a month ago, and I had seen grain piled up in nearby fields, so it seemed to me that they were running rather behind.  But I couldn't get him to crack.

Later in the day, I stopped by another granary. This one was open, complete with huge piles of grain in the open air, swooping birds, idling trucks, and everything else that marks government grain storage. Before he chased off my photographer, this supervisor (who, I should add, was wielding an enormous metal spike), confidently assured me that much more grain was coming in than had the previous year. I asked him for numbers. He told me oh, well, the yield is not up here, but in the country as a whole, it definitely is.

At which point I decided it was about time to go home to Cairo (with a brief pit-stop to try and photograph the granary from an overpass).