On the question of food
Courtesy: Hatem Gobrail

Over a year ago, I began interviewing food activists and researchers in Egypt on the question of food. I had noticed how there were a number of new initiatives that have made a strong appearance in the past five or six years, possibly in response to a global food movement that promotes eating clean and local food for better heath, empowering local economies, supporting small farmers and saving the environment. But beyond questions of health and economic sovereignty, food is increasingly recognized as a complex unit of analysis that opens debates on power politics, wars, global markets, income inequalities, technology, class, cultural trends and ethics.

In its 24th annual symposium on April 2, the Cairo Papers in Social Sciences (CPSS) — under the auspices of the American University in Cairo (AUC) — chose “the food question in the Middle East” as its theme of global interest this year. Introducing the symposium, professor Nicholas Hopkins described food studies as an emerging field whose method of study spans across different disciplines in order to understand the journey of food from farms to dining tables.

Food security: Maize or wheat?

In a presentation of his paper on dietary deficiencies and food insecurities in 20th-century Egypt, University of Washington professor Ellis Goldberg stated that recent debates on Egyptian food subsidies reminded him of the research he was doing on 1930s Egypt. He specifically recalled how, in an attempt to achieve self-sufficiency in the period between 1880-1950, Egyptians, particularly in the countryside, were subsisting on homegrown maize (corn) as their staple food source, instead of imported wheat. This resulted in a Pellagra epidemic — a life-threatening disease that was initially linked to high consumption of maize. But it was not maize as a food item that was causing the problem, he noted. After all, Mexicans have been eating corn tortillas for thousands of years. The problem was in the preparation of maize, particularly the lack of transfer of knowledge from the Americas to the Mediterranean countries, including Egypt, on how to safely prepare maize.  

The Mexicans used an ancient technique of soaking maize in an alkaline solution of limewater in order to release the acids in corn, making it digestible and safe for human consumption. Egyptian farmers, however, ground maize into flour to use as a substitute for wheat, which was a precious commodity at the time, grown to be sold exclusively in affluent markets.

In his analysis, Goldberg was responding to two narratives on the questions of self-sufficiency and food security in light of historical maize consumption in Egypt. The first was raised by professor Timothy Mitchell in an article published in 1991 entitled “America’s Egypt,” in which he criticized the shift from maize to wheat consumption — the government had decided that subsidizing imported wheat was, among other things, the solution to combat the Pallegra epidemic. Mitchell criticized this shift and argued that Egyptians should grow their own food to reverse the ills of dependency and eat maize to establish self-sufficiency. The second narrative that Goldberg responded to was by Alan Richards, who labeled maize as an unhealthy choice that should be avoided.

Goldberg’s first aim was to question the idea that self-sufficiency is essentially a solution to a country’s developmental challenge. After all, when the Egyptian government attempted self-sufficiency at the turn of the century, the working classes did not have enough to eat and were dying from consuming a homegrown affordable grain that they did not know how to prepare properly. Goldberg argues against thinking about food items in isolation from questions of technology and knowledge transfer, social adaptation and inequalities. In this case, maize in itself is not the problem — food is embedded in a matrix of power and influence, he explained. In other words, Egyptians in the countryside were dying from maize because they were at an economic disadvantage, could not afford a diverse diet and had no access to the knowledge of preparation of this affordable staple food item. Before the government imposed food subsidies, the poor could not afford wheat, which was the superior grain that they traditionally consumed as a staple food since ancient times.

Food sovereignty: On the politics of local varieties

Going beyond the traditional preoccupation with the question of food security (the concern by governments to provide enough food for its population out of fear of hunger), food activists and researchers today are invested in the concept of food sovereignty.

Reem Saad, a professor of social anthropology at AUC, Habib Ayeb, a geographer and professor at the Social Research Center, and others have been working for more than 10 years on advocating food sovereignty, which was eventually included in the 2014 Egyptian Constitution under Article 79.

“We have found out, through our research, the link between agro-biodiversity and secure tenancy for farmers,” says Saad. She adds that big corporations are monopolizing the seeds market (such as Monsanto), creating a situation whereby farmers are dependent on patent hybrid seeds that they cannot replant. Thus, corporatizing seeds has led to the disappearance of local seed varieties and the loss of farmers’ autonomy.

“Food sovereignty is about the quality of the produce, not just the quantity, and the welfare of the ones who produce our food, the farmers,” Saad explains. “It turns out that the local food, which tastes good and invokes good memories, is also the ethical choice.”

Inspired by the January 25 revolution in 2011, and driven by this conviction for the right of Egyptians to have access to good-quality food, as well as the right of farmers to make their own decisions and preserve their local varieties of seeds rather than depend on seed corporations and global market prices, initiatives such as Nawaya and Baladini evolved. 

Under the title, “Where is our baladi [local] food?” Sara al-Sayed, co-founder of Nawaya, and Sara Pozzi, co-founder of Baladini, spoke at the symposium. They started off by asking if local food is the answer to the food sovereignty question, defined as people’s right to healthy, culturally appropriate and ecologically sound food choices.

Nawaya is a social enterprise that works with small herder farmers in a peri-urban area in Giza governorate, where quality of life is poor, infrastructure is weak and farmers produce low-quality food due to unmonitored use of chemical fertilizers. Nawaya, for example, worked with local farmers to raise “ancient, resilient and indigenous Egyptian Bagawi chickens” originally grown in Fayoum in order to sell them in high-end farmers’ markets. The idea is to help the farmers raise their income, preserve the local variety (in this case, of chicken) and spread knowledge about better farming practices.

“Our idea is to protect local varieties and protect farmers who produce them. By granting them access to a niche market, we are securing a transitory market to protect them,” Sayed tells me.

A number of the food activists I spoke with advocated eating locally produced food and supporting small farmers, even if that means buying expensive artisanal products, if you can afford to. Bassem Khalifa, co-founder of Ma7ali, a deli in the Cairene neighborhood of Maadi that sources local produce, explains the case for eating local: “It is environmentally sound, less food miles in transportation, and supports local communities by creating a demand for clean local produce.”

This is also the motto of Baladini, “a community kitchen [in Sakkara] for rural women to become artisanal food producers through the creation of high-quality, nutritious food.” According to Sayed and Pozzi, women are the biggest guardians of local Egyptian food, and they work with them to reconfigure and preserve food traditions.

The role of women in preserving food traditions is not confined to cooking recipes, but also extends to knowledge of farming local seeds.

“Women farmers want to cook tasty food for their families. So they farm local seeds (which yield tastier produce) in small pieces of land for household consumption. They have the know-how of local seed production and propagation (storage),” Saad tells me. By preserving local seeds, small farmers protect themselves from the market, she adds. She explains that even if we valorize the local produce to sell it as an elite product, it is worthwhile because we need to protect local varieties and create a market for them, but we are also in need of farmers’ co-ops for marketing local products.

A botanist by training, Hala Barakat challenged the notion of “indigenous” food in her paper, “We are what we eat. We were what we ate.” Barakat studied plant remains carbonized in three archeological sites in the Egyptian desert: Abu Ballas in Dakhla, the hidden valley of Farafra in the Western Desert, and Nabta (near Abu Simbel in Egypt’s south). She presented a timeline of ancient vegetation. She explained how inhabitants of the Western Desert depended on wild grasses as nourishing staples in ancient times. She mentioned how archeological remains were found, indicating domestication of cattle. It was unlikely, she mentioned, that desert dwellers consumed their cattle on daily basis, but rather used their milk and ate their meat only on special occasions.

Beginning with the pre-dynastic era (circa 6000-3150 BC), she listed familiar food items: Jew’s mallow (molokhiya), fenugreek (hilba), tiger nut (hab al-’aziz) and emmer wheat. With the dynastic period, grains and seeds were brought into pharoanic Egypt from the Fertile Crescent. Among the earlier finds were watermelon, carob, pomegranate, onions and dates. With the passage of history, more plants were introduced, or “imported”: the Greco-Roman empire brought us aromatic herbs, the Arabs brought in spices through the Indian Ocean and Columbus took new world crops (such as potatoes, tomatoes and maize) to Europe. From there, they arrived in Egypt. Barakat’s mapping of the history of food clearly shows the impossibility of claiming that there are essentially local or indigenous food and others that are foreign, especially so in a place like Egypt, located in the midst of the major trade routes. How can one possibly identify a historical cut-off point to delineate the indigenous from the new food?

Even though it might be difficult to identify certain food as essentially indigenous and others as not, Barakat is an advocate of food sovereignty. As an environmentalist, she believes that dependence on imported varieties and fertilizers destroys the soil and kills biodiversity. “The solution for Egypt is thus to insist on ‘seed freedom’ and encourage small farmers to preserve local varieties that best suit this country’s soil and climate,” she stated in an earlier article.

The global concern for preserving biodiversity is so pertinent that international farming groups have rescued local seeds from war-torn Syria. In wars, farmers cannot farm the land, and they have to often flee villages overtaken by fighters. “Most of us don’t think about agriculture as one of the losses of war,” Owen Taylor, co-founder of Experimental Farm Network, a farming group based in New Jersey, says. Taylor and his team do not only store the seeds in banks, but they farm and sell Syrian varieties to keep them alive, most especially, “heritage breeds of fruits and vegetables often favored by small subsistence farmers.”

The politics of hunger

Khaled Mansour worked with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) for seven years, handling major operations in the Middle East. At the symposium, he narrated a horrific tale of international food aid politics.

“International food aid saves millions of lives, but this humanitarian enterprise operates in a political environment,” he stated. Mansour spoke of how food aid is politically instrumentalized, obstructing the ability of aid workers to distribute aid on the basis of need, only following humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.

In 2015, the WFP was able to distribute food to 4 million Syrians by working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. “But most of the aid went to government-controlled areas, where UN agencies are able to operate,” he stated.  The areas that are left to starve are those besieged by the government, recalling the images of starving children in besieged Madaya, where reports of death from starvation filled the news. Today, the besieged Syrian town of Daraya is on the verge of starvation. Mansour told us how besieged areas, where people are starving, are sometimes only minutes away from UN convoys.

“The UN knows the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of sieges and that it uses food as a weapon,” he explained. But, he added, aid workers are often faced with a dilemma: they either work with the government to save some lives — millions of lives — at the cost of prolonging the war and strengthening certain factions, or don’t deliver any food at all. If the UN opts for delivering aid without government consent, there is no safety for UN convoys. While Mansour acknowledged the dilemma facing international aid agencies, he was absolutely critical of the “sanitized apolitical language” used by the UN. “They just need to admit being part of the hyperbole, and not go beyond what is ‘acceptable [compromise]’,” he noted.

But the hunger crisis is not confined to war-torn countries. Professor of sociology at AUC Malak Rouchdy reminded us at the symposium of the Egyptian bread crisis in 2008. Egyptians were literally dying in scuffles in bread queues, and, according to the WFP, around 11 people starved to death while waiting in line for bread, which consequently classified Egypt as a state where people are facing “hunger,” Rouchdy explained.

Throughout the 2000s, Egyptians suffered the effects of the Egypt’s Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment (ERSAP) plan. In 1991, Egypt was mandated by international financial organizations to implement ERSAP policies (cutting subsidies and implementing free market legislation) as conditions for aid. In 2007, Rouchdy explained, the World Bank Poverty Assessment realized the disastrous outcomes of the ERSAP polices: poverty rates reached 40 percent (particularly concentrated in rural Upper Egypt), the agricultural and food sectors were hit hard, and the depreciation of the Egyptian pound led to soaring food prices. This forced the government to increase spending on subsidies once more.

“How is it that international organizations, like the World Bank, realize the ‘disastrous outcomes,’ but still force the reforms? No one, not the government, or international organizations questioned their policies … the food crisis was presented as an unintentional consequence of development,” she noted.

To resolve this food crisis, the neo-business elites — the only beneficiaries of the government policies — established food banks, such as the Egyptian Food Bank: “An organization founded in 2006 by a group of businessmen close to the then ruling National Democratic Party, specializing in hunger,” she explained.

We are all too familiar with the million-pound advertisement commercials of this bank, which has been able to garner huge donations throughout the years by playing on people’s moral duty to feed the poor, and diverting attention away from structural inequalities.

In reality, the hungry might have appeared silent, but resistance was brewing. No one among the neo-business elites, who formed the last businessmen Cabinet under former President Hosni Mubarak, had predicted the uprising on January 25, 2011, when people chanted: “Bread, freedom and social justice.”

What the speakers throughout the symposium echoed is that food crises, or rather hunger crises, are man-made. Governmental and inter-governmental policies often leave the poor to subside on a diet that kills them, or are left to starve. This was true a century back, when poor Egyptians in the countryside were left to subsist on an affordable grain without knowledge of how to safely prepare it. And it is true today of Egyptians who either face starvation at moments of heightened crisis, or barely survive on unhealthy diets due to structural inequalities in income. The solution, as Goldberg put it, is to tackle income inequalities, and “to expand people’s ability to obtain a greater command of their food.”

Dina Hussein 

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