CAIRO: After years of serious neglect by international organizations and nations alike, agriculture is being put back on the policy map.
“And it could never be at a better time, announced Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza in his fly-by stop to the World Bank’s World Development Report seminar at the Center for Genetic Engineering Studies Sunday.
In 2002, World Bank funding for agricultural affairs dipped to a low of 7 percent, compared to 20 percent in the 1980s. Now, with the world facing a global food shortage, it is beginning to regain focus on what is reckoned to be the defining element of political and social policy in the next decade.
“That figure is beginning to see a rise, commented Elija Pehu, advisor of the agricultural and rural development department of the World Bank, who presented an introduction to the report before specialists during the seminar.
“Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and many of them work in farming. At present, there is a large disparity in wealth between urban and rural areas, especially in developing countries. We believe investment in agricultural development can reduce that gap.
However, Pehu alerted audience members to the significant lack of agricultural investment, a fact which has stunted growth in many countries.
“There is not enough investment into research, and money available is pumped into subsidy support and protectionism rather than research that will bear more fruit in the long-term. Often the Ministries of Agriculture in their respective countries have a weak voice, leaving its needs left on the shelf.
The World Development report entitled “Agriculture for Development deals with a range of issues whose implementation is thought pertinent to the future of agriculture and the fate of the farming industry.
The tendency of developing countries to cling on to subsidies as a means of alleviating the economic burden of small farmers came under heavy fire, branded by panelist Hamed El-Shiati, chairman of Shoura Group Co., as “a dangerous tool, neither natural nor healthy. Farmers should not depend on subsidies, but on the existing balance of inputs and outputs. An insurance system must instead be developed to protect farmers.
The report also states that in fact misuse of subsidies in many countries have mostly benefited richer farmers.
However, some participants expressed fear that should subsidies by removed, prices would rise, invoking a public outcry. They also expressed anger at World Bank suggestions for developing countries to redirect and curb subsidies when Western farmers are also heavily subsidized.
The World Bank Agricultural Development Report suggests “New Approaches to Input Subsidies, where they plan to redesign input subsidies as “market smart strategies. According to the report, these would ideally be granted in the form of vouchers, matching grants and partial loan guarantees.
It cites the example of Mali, where, under a scheme called “Input for Assets, farmers were rewarded for their participation in public works projects by being granted vouchers redeemable with local agro-dealers.
Against a backdrop of a world food shortage, the report proposes that developing countries gear themselves towards planting Genetically Modified (GM) Organisms, a trend that is already common in developing countries.
“GM crops have great potential for the poor, said Elija Pehu. “However they are limited to a small scope of crops in developing countries. Two countries, where small holders have adopted transgenic [crops] are India and China, who have benefited greatly.
The report uses the example of the two latter countries, whose 9.2 million farmers adoption of Bt cotton, a transgenic crop used for insect resistance, have led to high profits and greater health benefits, a result of lower pesticide use. This method is reportedly being used to a limited extent in Egypt.
“Egypt must speed up to use genetic engineering; it is an indispensable tool and the private sector must invest in researching methods so we can cut down use of hazardous chemicals on pest control, said panelist Ayman Abu Hadid, president of the Agricultural Research Center.
Despite championing GM crops, experts admit the hurdles faced by developing countries seeking it. These include lack of interest in the public sector, the use of patents on proprietary technologies, persistent concern over food safety, and incompetence of public bodies in adequately assessing food risks.
Tackling region by region, the report calls for a “climate of investment in the Middle East and Asia, as well as collective action on the part of small holding farmers. According to the report, collective action between small farmers will allow them to bargain for better prices. Securing property rights to instill more farmer confidence and promote private investment is also cited as fundamental to agricultural growth.
It is strongly believed that the biggest handicap faced by Egypt’s agricultural sector is its unrelenting water scarcity compounded by “Phaoronic irrigation methods, particularly in the Nile Delta. “Figures show that up to 50 percent of water is wasted in old lands, said Tareq Tawfiq, chairman of the Chamber of Food Industry. “We should be on par with countries such as Turkey and Italy, but instead we are lagging behind other countries.
Tawfiq also called for a serious examination of wastage in Egypt’s retail system. “Twelve percent of wheat is wasted during handling. Our retailing system invites waste and exploitation by profiteering third parties.