Cropping Patterns, Production, and Yield

Egypt Table of Contents

Egyptian farmers grew a rich variety of crops, including grains, cotton, barsim (clover), legumes, fruits, and vegetables, thanks to the warm climate, plentiful water along the Nile, and exceptionally fertile soil. The country essentially has two seasons, summer and winter; spring and fall are quite short. The climatic differences between north and south have some impact on the geographical distribution of crops. For example, humidity in the Delta suits long-staple cotton. The drier, hotter climate of the south favors the planting of sugarcane, onions, and lentils. Variations in climate are not great, however, and major crops were grown in most of the climatic zones.

The single most important change in the cropping pattern in Egypt's modern history was the introduction of cotton during the reign of Muhammad Ali, because it led to the transformation of irrigation methods. Cotton requires a good deal of water in summer when the Nile water is low, and it must be harvested before the flood season. This necessitated the regulation of the Nile flow and brought about a shift from basin (flood) to perennial (roughly, on demand) irrigation.

Perennial irrigation not only made cotton growing possible, it also permitted double and even triple cropping on most of the arable land. Furthermore, it enabled farmers to switch the crop rotation from a three- to a two-year cycle. The original three-year cycle included clover and cotton in the first year, beans and fallow in the second, and wheat or barley and corn in the third. The two-year rotation consisted of clover or fallow followed by cotton, and the second year, crops of wheat or barley and beans followed by clover and corn. By 1890 about 40 percent of the land was put on a two-year rotation. The biennial rotation was believed to be harsh on the land, and the government tried to eliminate it under Nasser. In 1990 farmers resorted to both rotations flexibly.

Crop areas were regulated by the government according to manifold economic, technical, and social criteria. Comprehensive land use planning began only in 1966, and requirements were relaxed in 1974. But farmers responded to other imperatives as well, and the area occupied by various crops changed over time.

The major shift since 1952 was the significant reduction of the cotton area and the parallel increase in that of clover, horticulture, and rice. Originally, the government put a maximum limit on the cotton area to avoid excess production and lower prices on the world market; the Egyptian supply of long-staple cotton affected world prices because of its large share. As the cotton area shrank, however, the government began to set minimum limits, because cotton was needed in order to obtain foreign exchange. Cheap cotton has represented an important source of foreign currency for the government and has enabled it to subsidize consumer clothing. At the same time, cotton became less profitable for the farmer than other, noncontrolled crops. The cotton area was almost halved between 1952 and 1987, thanks to the government policy requiring farmers to sell all their cotton output to the government at fixed prices that were kept below world market prices. Cotton profitability was further reduced in the late 1970s and the 1980s by rising wages, because cotton is one of the most labor intensive major crops.

Cotton output also declined, but not in the same proportion as the decline in land area, because of the rise in yields. Yields increased over the long term, although they fluctuated annually. Overall, they increased by about 50 percent between 1952 and 1980 but stagnated or actually declined in the 1980s. The continuous breeding of new varieties and the pest-control program organized by the government helped increase the yield. The reduced labor input in the 1980s, however, may have caused yields to level off or drop.

Clover occupied by far the largest area of all crops, increasing by about 500,000 feddans between 1952 and 1987 and comprising about one-quarter of the cropped area in the latter year. The government policy vis--vis clover was diametrically opposite to its cotton policy. Clover was used as animal feed, and the government protected both the crop and meat by tariffs. This protection made clover a lucrative crop for many farmers, especially as demand for livestock grew during the oil boom. Farmers, especially small farmers, also had to grow sufficient amounts of clover to feed their draft animals. On one hand, the expansion of animal-displacing mechanization could lead to a reduction of the clover area in the future. Such an outcome would leave more room for basic staples, especially wheat. On the other hand, clover fixes soil nitrogen, and a serious reduction in its area could have an adverse impact on soil fertility. Clover production increased mainly because of the expansion of the land area; little plant breeding was undertaken, and yields remained relatively stable. The slight increase may have been caused by the additional labor time, water, and fertilizers allocated to the crop and by the farmers' delay in planting cotton, which followed clover, so as to allow an extra cutting of clover.

The wheat area remained relatively stable. The stability may be explained by the fact that although the crop was partially controlled, the government procurement price was kept close to the domestic free market price. Wheat was also the basic staple; small and medium-size farmers retained large proportions of it for subsistence or animal feed. The straw also served as animal forage in the summer. Wheat production increased over the long run, because of rising yields. Yields rose steadily, especially between 1980 and 1987; the annual growth rate increased from 5 to 6 percent in the period from 1980 to 1987. The diffusion of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) encountered many problems, however, including susceptibility of the bred varieties to rust and the shortness of their straw-producing stem. Despite these difficulties, the diffusion of HYVs expanded steadily in the 1980s. The area of HYVs increased from about 1,300 feddans in 1978 to more than 128,000 feddans in 1983.

The area planted with corn, which was introduced in Egypt in the nineteenth century, remained relatively stable. Corn was consumed by both humans and animals. It was not a controlled crop; the government, moreover, subsidized yellow corn until 1987 when it raised the price considerably, effectively cutting the subsidy. The rise in production occurred as a result of the increase in yields. The yields rose by about 40 percent after the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1964. Perennial irrigation enabled farmers to plant corn during May or June instead of July or August. The new timing afforded the crop cooler temperatures and escape from the summer corn borer. Yields were also bolstered by the application of more water and fertilizers. Plant breeding played virtually no role in yield increases until the 1980s, but HYVs probably accounted for most of the increase in yields in the 1980s.

Rice, grown in Egypt for 1,400 years, saw its area expand sharply by about 500,000 feddans promptly after the Aswan High Dam was built and has hovered around 1 million feddans since then. Rice was an important staple, and about one-third of it was probably consumed by small farm households. It was a partially controlled crop; the government procured one-half of the output and subsidized it to consumers, but procurement prices were close to the domestic free market price. The consumer subsidy was lowered after 1987. Production increased in proportion to yields. Yields exhibited a steady upward movement as water became more available and fertilizer use increased. Yield increase was also achieved by the breeding and diffusion of new varieties. An early maturing variety derived from Japanese rice was diffused through about 25 percent of the area in 1984, compared with 2 percent two years previously. New varieties were being developed by the end of the decade.

One of the most significant shifts in land use was the expansion of the horticultural area. Egyptian farmers cultivated a wide array of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, lettuce, onions, citrus, and mangoes. Vegetables were planted on more than 1 million feddans by 1980, and the area has stabilized since then. The most prevalent crops were tomatoes and melons, which in 1987 occupied more than 400,000 and 125,000 feddans, respectively. Vegetables were not a controlled crop, and demand for them grew rapidly during the oil boom. Domestic demand leveled off subsequently, and no significant export outlets had been found by 1990. Further expansion would probably depend on establishing such markets, not a simple task considering the stiff regional competition. Yields rose, but it was difficult to determine the sources of overall growth; the combination of more water and fertilizers would be a factor.

The area planted with fruits also expanded steadily and reached about 616,000 feddans in 1987. Fruits, like vegetables, were not a controlled crop, and demand rose with the rise in incomes after 1974. Citrus fruits and grapes, the two dominant crops, were planted on more than 200,000 and 110,000 feddans, respectively. Overall, agricultural crop production increased at annual rates of 2.6 percent between 1964 and 1970 and 3.5 percent between 1970 and 1980, but it stagnated in the 1980s. Yields were relatively high by the standards of developing countries. Rice yields, for example, were higher than those of Asian countries using modern, capital-intensive farming systems, save for that of the Japanese. Wheat and cotton yields were among the highest in the world. Agronomists, however, believed that these yields could be considerably enhanced, given better cultivation practices, management, and pricing policies.

Cropping patterns and crop yields differed according to farm size. The Egyptian farmer grew a variety of crops; there was little single cropping in Egypt as there was, for example, in the United States or in Asia. It is difficult to describe farming patterns in more detail, however, because the scarce information available is inconclusive and sometimes contradictory. A survey of three Delta villages in 1984 found that farmers who cultivated one feddan or less were more likely to grow cotton than those with holdings greater than ten feddans, a conclusion that contradicted findings of an earlier study. It also revealed that yield levels of different-sized farms varied by crop. For instance, wheat yields were higher on small farms, while the opposite was true for rice. The reasons were not clear, and the findings contradicted a large body of evidence from other countries that showed yields were invariably greater on small farms. There was agreement, however, that larger farms produced proportionally more fruit crops, probably because the high capital investment and the long-term commitment required would be prohibitive to small farmers, who needed more flexibility.

In addition to crops, Egypt had a relatively significant stock of animals that yielded meat, milk, and power. The country had virtually no permanent pastureland, and animals were fed clover, corn, barley, and wheat, competing with humans for the scarce land resources. Livestock populations grew slowly, although steadily, after 1952 and stabilized or even declined in some years during the 1980s. The growth before the 1980s was stimulated by a 100-percent meat protection rate, rising demand, and cheap credit to farmers. The stagnation in the 1980s possibly reflected the limited availability of feed, as is further indicated in increasing yellow corn imports, probably in response to the demand for feed. The number of water buffalo, the primary source of milk on farms and of draft power before mechanization, almost doubled to 2.5 million between 1952 and 1978. The number declined slightly in succeeding years, then climbed again to the 1978 level in 1986. The cattle stock stood at about 1.8 million in the 1980s. The numbers of both sheep and camels continued a downward trend. The number of sheep fell from close to 2 million in 1937 to fewer than 1.2 million in 1986, and the number of camels dropped from 200,000 in 1947 to 68,000 in 1986. The increasing availability of vehicles was probably an important factor in the decline of camel herds, as the beasts were used for transport. The number of pigs remained stable at 15,000; only Egyptian Coptic Christians and Christian foreigners ate pork. Poultry became an important industry in the mid-1970s; the number of chickens approached 30 million in 1986, and the number of eggs approached 4 million.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress