Natural Selection In Egypt

Author: Cam McGrath, Photos: Mohsen Allam, Nicola Matthews
Egypt Today . (Source)

Organic health food is trendy, but almost all of the countrys organic products are destined for foreign markets. How can farmers convince Egyptian shoppers that those more pricey chemical-free veggies are the right choice?

Dr. Mohammed Kandil, of the National Research Center, has shown that theres no difference between organic and conventional farming in terms of yield.

Nevine Helmy has no idea she just made a healthy decision. The mother of three just purchased a package of organic yellow peppers certified free of chemical residues. They cost twice as much as the regular yellow peppers on the store shelf beside them, but Helmy insists they "look and taste better."

"Ive read about organic foods in newspapers, but I didnt realize this was what they were talking about," she says.

Most Egyptians have heard about organic foods, but few really know much about them. Which is a dilemma for people like Egyptian Organic Agriculture chairman Hajj Elsayed Ashour. Ten years ago, he launched a biodynamic farming project on 40 feddans. His Fayoum-based company now runs organic farms on more than 1,000 feddans of reclaimed land from Mansoura to Assiut. Importers are buying up his organic herbs and vegetables as fast as he can produce them, but reaching Egyptian consumers is another matter.

"The only place to sell organic products is supermarkets, but they dont have enough knowledge about organic to deal with them properly," he says. "Nor do consumers."

How do producers like Ashour reach consumers like Helmy, to make sure she continues to buy those better-looking, better-tasting yellow peppers - which also happen to be better for her?

Organic foods are the products of an agricultural system that uses all natural inputs to promote soil fertility and biodiversity. Organic farmers grow crops and raise livestock without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones or genetic modification. Its a labor-intensive endeavor that requires workers to spend long hours in the fields visually inspecting each plant and weeding manually using specialized tools. This may be good news for the nations job-seekers, but the high labor costs translate into higher retail prices that discourage many consumers.

"A kilo of tomatoes that costs LE 1 on the street may sell for LE 2.50 in supermarkets," explains a Zamalek greengrocer. "Organic tomatoes cost even more, retailing for about LE 6 per kilo. Who can afford that?"

Despite the costs, organic agriculture is a growth industry. Farmers in 130 countries have made the switch, feeding a $22 billion global industry that is expected to double by the end of the decade. European countries, particularly Austria and Sweden, have embraced the movement, allocating up to 10 percent of their land for organic agriculture. Egypt, by comparison, has set aside 30,000 feddans, or about 0.1 percent of its cropland.

Octogenarians might recall the days when Egypt was fully organic. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to be unheard of, but in the 1940s science promised to protect Egypt from the droughts and locust plagues that had ravaged the country since ancient times. Farmers rushed to spray crops with a new breed of bug killers with catchy abbreviations like DDT and HCB. The pesticides killed the bugs, but according to studies, slowly poisoned everything else too.

Meanwhile, the annual Nile flood that delivered a thick layer of nutrient-rich silt to farmers fields ended with the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1965. Robbed of natural fertilizer, farmers grew increasingly dependent on artificial ingredients.

Egypts organic movement was pioneered by Ibrahim Abouleish. Returning to Egypt in the mid-70s after living in Europe, he was appalled by the way local farmers were degrading the land and polluting the environment. The international organic movement was only a decade old at that time, but Abouleish saw Egypts potential to break free of its chemical dependency.

"Egyptian farmers knew nothing about cultivation," he recalls. "We had to teach them everything from scratch."

Abouleish launched Egypts first biodynamic farm in 1977 on 170 feddans of virgin desert land 60 kilometers north of Cairo. In 26 years, the original Sekem farm has grown into a nationwide network of 160 biodynamic farms cultivating some 7,000 feddans to produce its own brands of organic food products, pharmaceuticals and textiles.

Sekem built its success on the lucrative export trade, but the company has also managed to carve a niche in the domestic market. It launched its trademark organic herbal teas in 1983, backed by a media campaign that introduced the concept of "health food" to the uninformed Egyptian public. As soaring export sales brought production costs down, the company gradually expanded its product line. Convincing people to pay more for natural foods has not been easy, admits Abouleish, and there is much more to be done.

"We have to educate the public," he says. "Organic agriculture is a new concept in Egypt, and people should know more about it and the implications of using organic products."

For Khalil Nasrallah, manager of Wadi Foods, being able to put "organic" on the label is a definite marketing advantage abroad.

Most Egyptians are unaware of the dangers lurking in their food. Pesticide residues linger on fruit, chemical fertilizers leach into leafy vegetables and controversial genetically modified organisms - the kind that Americans refuse to eat - crop up in biscuits. Farmers trying to make ends meet are using science to increase productivity, pumping livestock with antibiotics and hormones to fatten them for slaughter. Meanwhile, producers are infusing products with fungicides and preservatives to extend shelf life.

By the time it reaches the consumer, a food product might contain enough traces of biological and chemical additives to pique the interest of U.N. arms inspectors. While quantities of the individual toxins may be low, the cumulative long-term effect is a frightening unknown. Many of these chemicals are banned in the United States and Europe, and are linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.

Despite substantial reductions over the past 15 years, farmers still use pesticides the way they use sugar in their tea. Malathion, a chemical cousin to deadly sarin gas, is sprinkled on Sinai herb crops. Cypermethrin, a carcinogen that impairs nerve signals, blankets vegetable fields in the Delta. Atrazine, a powerful weed-killer that turns frogs hermaphroditic, glistens on sugar cane stalks in Upper Egypt.

However, when it comes to the average salad, things are not as bad as they might seem, asserts Dr. Salwa Dogheim, director of the Central Laboratory for Residue Analysis of Pesticides and Heavy Metals in Foods.

The government-run lab screens food products destined for both the domestic and export markets, testing 20,000 samples a year for residues of 82 commonly-used pesticides. Results are compared to maximum residue levels (MRLs) set in the FAO/WHO international health guidelines.

"You can feel safe," says Dogheim. "Most fruits and vegetables in Egypt are within acceptable limits."

Fruit samples tested in 2002 showed 64.9 percent free of any measurable pesticide residues, 33 percent with residues below the MRL, and only 2.1 percent in excess. Results for vegetables were even better. Nearly 85 percent were free of pesticides, 12.3 percent had residues below MRLs and 2.78 percent were in violation.

Dogheim admits that all fruit and vegetable testing is done on a voluntary basis, but says it is in the interest of producers to provide representative samples. An export shipment turned away at a foreign port can cost a producer thousands. If produce is found to exceed MRL while still in Egypt, the producer still has time to readjust his pesticide regiment or - according to cynics - dump his load of toxic cucumbers on the unsuspecting Egyptian public.

Organic producers avoid chemical pesticides altogether, seeking instead natural solutions to their bug- and disease-control problems. The strategies are clever. For example, farmers use traps baited with pheromones, a hormonal love potion secreted by female insects, to eliminate male insects. Distortion perfumes trick bugs into thinking theres nothing worth munching on, while sticky sheets pick them out of the air like flypaper.

Natural enemies of pests are employed. Farmers seed their crops with friendly ladybugs to eat unwelcome aphids that destroy citrus groves. Toads are invited to feast on destructive locusts and moths. And as a last line of defense, organic bacteria and natural substances, such as sulfur, tree resins and essential oils, are used to fight diseases and destroy insect larvae.

In extreme cases, organic farmers cut their losses and start fresh. Ali Fahmi, an organic banana producer who owns a small farm in Banha, loses up to one-fifth of his banana trees each year to a tenacious virus that affects their growth. A chemical solution exists, but in order to keep his production organic, Fahmi cuts down the diseased trees and uses them as fertilizer. Its a heavy price to pay, but Fahmi insists the end product is worth it.

"The bananas are grown without any artificial chemicals and no pesticides whatsoever," he says. "Theyre not pumped with stuff to make them look better ... they are natural and simply taste better."

Cutting out chemical additives is just part of the holistic approach. Organic agriculture respects the natural capacity of plants, animals and the environment.

"Basically, youre trying to re-establish the natural ecosystem rather than work against it," explains Fahmi.

Organic farmers practice crop rotation, waste recycling and integrated animal husbandry as part of an interactive system. Biodynamic farmers take it a step further, calculating the influence of cosmic rhythms on plant fertility and growth. Potatoes are seeded during the new moon to obtain the highest yields, wood is felled during the waning moon to prevent rot, and cows are kept happy so they produce more milk. It all sounds very medieval or New Age, but proponents insist it is a valid science.
The primary concern of farmers is economic feasibility. The prevailing belief among growers is that organic farming is a risky venture with low yields and limited returns. While many acknowledge the success of Sekem, which reported $100 million in total revenues last year, they are cautious about entering a new market.

Those who do invariably start with medicinal and aromatic plants, arguably the easiest and most dependable organic crops to cultivate, and in high demand overseas. Many of these plants grow wild or require only minimal human intervention. They are also valued for their special ability to remove toxins from polluted soils.

"These plants are hyper-accumulators of heavy metals," says Dr. Mohammed Kandil of the National Research Center. "They remove heavy metals from the soil but do not absorb them into their essential oils."

This unusual property makes these plants an excellent transition crop for organic producers or farmers whose tired land is otherwise unsuitable for organic cultivation. And while lower crop yield is often cited as a main deterrent against switching to organic methods, Kandils research has shown this is not always the case.

Kandil notes that in field studies he conducted on fennel crops, "I discovered that there is no difference between organic and conventional farming [of fennel] in terms of yield. Farmers in Egypt can grow fennel using organic farming practices without substantial loss of income."

Until recently, the same could not be said for cotton, Egypts most important cash crop. Cotton is a magnet for countless insidious pests that nibble and chomp its white fiber. Without an intensive regiment of pesticides, most of the countrys cotton might never make it to market.

"We have a lot of insects in Egypt that attack cotton in all three stages of its growth," says Dr. Mahmoud el-Naggar, director of the government-run Plant Protection Research Institute. "Our cotton-growing areas are divided into small spaces, and there is interaction with other crops, so that many pests come from adjacent fields."

Fighting bollworms - nasty little critters that feast on cotton seedpods - with pheromone traps, Sekem challenged the experts and planted 35 feddans of organic cotton in 1990. The results of the experiment were so positive that organic cultivation has spread to nearly 1,000 feddans in Egypt.

"Organic cotton gives 5-10 percent higher yields than conventional cotton," claims Klaus Merckens, general manager of the Egyptian Biodynamic Association (EBDA), a non-profit research and training organization launched by Sekem.

The higher yield helps to offset higher labor costs. Furthermore, the garments made of organic cotton and dyes fetch premium prices on overseas markets. EBDA also subsidizes small farmers making the risky conversion to organic production.

Farmers cant switch to organic agriculture overnight. International regulations require that their land undergo a transition phase - usually two years - during which no chemicals are used and organic methods are employed. Then, provided the farm meets all standards and samples prove free of chemical residues, the producer is certified and permitted to label his products as "organic." Regular inspection visits ensure that the producer maintains compliance.

"The farmer has to manage a quality and production system as a guarantee for the consumers," says Remo Ciucciomei, chairman of Instituto Mediterraneo di Certificazione (IMC), an Italian-based certification body that monitors organic production in several Mediterranean countries. "Certifying the organic agriculture process means making inspections in order to verify the conformity of the whole process, but especially evaluating the professional training, knowledge and resources of the organic farm."

IMC is just one of many certification bodies operating in Egypt. While efforts are under way to unify the multiplicity of standards systems, most producers select one compliant with EU regulations, thereby securing access to the lucrative European market.

Time and capital investment act as deterrents against cheating. Failure to comply with standards could cost the organic farmer his certificate, and the grower would be forced to re-enter the conventional market at a loss.

Wadi Food is a company in transition. Two years ago, the gourmet-food producer planted olive trees on 300 feddans of newly-reclaimed land using organic methods.

"When we started a new farm two years ago we knew that wed have an advantage in exporting organic products," says manager Khalil Nasrallah. "If you have organic olives, especially of the kalimata variety, you really cannot do better."

The company recognized two key advantages: virgin desert land for a clean setup, and the parent companys chicken breeding operations, which supply plenty of manure for composting to create organic fertilizer. Yet the desert proved challenging, since it doesnt provide a lot of habitat for pests natural enemies. "So if we do have an infestation of insects," says Nasrallah, "we might be in big trouble."

Nasrallah still recalls a run-in with some nasty, tiny worms that frustrated the companys first attempt to go organic. The critters made nodules in the roots of the olive trees, stunting their growth and slowly killing them.

"We tried to use organic control and we brought in experts from Cairo University, and we tried and tried for four or five years, but we had to use chemicals in the end," he says. "There went our attempt to be organic. We had to go back to conventional at that time."

Driven by a personal belief in organic products and the financial incentives for producing them, Nasrallah tried again on a new plot of land. Persistence paid off; the company expects the 300 feddans of organic olive trees to receive international certification next season.

"Definitely we will have a marketing advantage when we can put organic on the label," he says, stressing that organic products fetch top prices in international markets.

Wadi Food is now experimenting with 70 feddans of organic grapes and will plant an additional 300 feddans of organic olives by the end of the year.

"When this new land is developed and certified organic, our aim is to go back to the conventional land and start little by little turning it into organic," says Nasrallah.

The company expects its organic products will do well in the U.S. and Europe, but is lukewarm about the local market. Egyptian consumers are hesitant to pay a premium for natural products, especially those that dont conform to their preconceived notions of what the product should look like. Olives are a good example. Every year, it seems, a factory is shut down when health inspectors discover workers dyeing olives to make them darker, which looks more appealing on store shelves.

"We are already facing problems when we go to the market with natural olives compared to colored olives, which have chemical dyes," says Nasrallah. "So if we go to the market and tell people these olives are a little more expensive because theyre organic, I think it will be very difficult for us to sell in Egypt."

Dr. Youssef Hamdy, the director of the Egyptian Center of Organic Agriculture, works hard to promote organic agriculture in Egypt, linking producers with buyers and working to increase consumer awareness. He says Egyptians are divided into three types of consumers.

"The first kind is poor and cannot afford higher prices, the second one is middle-class but has different priorities than [health] safety, and the third is higher-class who can afford to buy organic but dont know about it."

Organic producers are targeting educated, upper-class Egyptians and foreigners with enough money to afford a health-conscious diet - the type that lurks in major supermarkets.

At a Mohandiseen Metro store, Dr. Nashwa Ali Abdel Kader passes over a plump head of conventionally grown lettuce for a smaller organic one. The clinical pathologist, a mother of two young children, says that when it comes to fresh produce, she is willing to pay more for fruits and vegetables grown without chemicals.

"While I was young I never ate organic foods, but Im afraid for my kids," she says. "Nowadays we have more choices."

Abdel Kader is one of many consumers who selectively purchase organic products according to an internal formula. Some buy when the price is only slightly higher, others go organic for products like strawberries that are notorious for pesticides, and others stick to organic greens.

"I only buy [organic] vegetables that I will use fresh," she says. "If I plan to cook them then it is no problem to use ordinary vegetables."

In another aisle, accountant Mohammed Kamel circumvents the Egyptian organic olive oil to grab an Italian brand nearly three times the price.

"The bottle looks better, and imported products are usually higher quality," he says.

Kamel claims he sometimes buys organic spices, but only because he finds the prices comparable with conventional ones and the packaging to be professional. Organic producers admit that quality presentation suggests a quality product, and snazzy packaging sells, although the added cost is a major expense.

Yet for many, attractive packaging is not enough to convince them to pay more. They question whether a few vegetables really adds up in the big scheme of things.

"Why bother?" wonders Amira Safwat. "We have polluted air, polluted water, polluted everything."

The 23-year-old construction engineer feels chemical residues in food are the least of her worries. Egypts polluted environment - like car emissions, industrial fumes, contaminated water and the infamous Black Cloud - presents far more insidious health risks.

Persuading Egyptians to change their consumer habits is a difficult task, but as foreign markets grow, farmers seeking a piece of the action have greater incentives to switch to organic. Their products may be too expensive for most Egyptian families now, but as economies of scale kick in prices will inevitably fall. Herbal teas, fruits and vegetables are just the beginning. Its only a matter of time until we see organic koshari.

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Natural Selection In Egypt

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