Bird flu / Egypt / Food Security / Middle East / North Africa / Poultry / Zoonotic Diseases

Food and Egypt: Did high food prices help stir the public revolts?

Girl with koshary

In Egypt, rising food prices have caused panic and hunger: Girl with koshary, Egypt’s national dish, consisting of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni topped with salsa or, for the lucky few with more money, meat (photo credit: James Buck’s Flickr photostream).

In the months of October and November 2010, Ellen Geerlings, then working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, carried out interviews of rural households in Egypt as part of her doctoral research exploring how bird flu and the food crisis have affected the food security and livelihood situations in that country. The following excerpts are from a photoessay on this topic she has posted on her blog.

‘The UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index in January 2011 exceeded the peak of the 2007-2008 food price crisis. When it comes to food, the boundaries between stability and disorder are easily crossed. In how far increases in food prices stand at the bases of the unrest now seen in the Middle East is unclear but it is clear that food prices can be an important factor in causing civil unrest and a catalyst for anti-government protests. Egypt has been at the epicenter of recent unrest in the Middle East. With more than 40% of the population living on less than 2$ a day, volatility of food prices can easily contribute to instability and unrest on the streets.

‘While Egypt’s economy has grown over the past ten years, progress in human development has been uneven. It has proven difficult to improve the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable. Forty per cent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. The proportion of extreme poor (inability to meet the basic food needs) has even increased in recent years. Soaring food prices are the main driver behind the increase in the proportion of people living in extreme poverty; this share increased from 5.4% to 6.4%; this means 5–6 million people are unable to meet basic food needs, let alone basic housing.

‘. . . Amira, a divorced lady of 70 with bad eyesight and hearing . . . shares her tiny house with a 12-year old orphaned girl whom she takes care off. Amira sleeps on a hard bed and her toilet consists of a hole in the floor of her tiny house. All she owns is 4 chickens and the rest of her possessions are contained in a few plastic bags. She used to have 15 chickens but she lost 11 due to disease; possibly bird flu. She lives [on] a small pension of 55 Egyptian Pounds (EGP), this is equivalent to 5.8 United Kingdom Pounds (GBP) per month and occasionally receives charity in the form of food or money from well-off villagers. She sometimes earns a few Egyptian pounds by selling a few eggs. The vast majority of her money is spent on food and she will regularly have only tea and dry bread for her meals. Women support one fifth of Egyptian households, these households are especially vulnerable because of lack of income-generating opportunities as women have lower levels of education, public participation and poorer access to health and vocational training than men. The few chances open to women of earning money are often limited to seasonal labour, petty trade and poultry keeping. . . .

‘Poultry keeping is a major component of the livelihoods of the poor in Egypt providing income and a cheap source of high quality protein. Poultry keeping is one of a few income generating activities available to women and the simultaneous impact of bird flu which is now endemic in Egypt and soaring food prices have affected women’s economic empowerment and well being. Income from poultry is often spent on children’s needs such as education, while eggs form an important source of protein for children.

‘In order to cope with the simultaneous impact of bird flu and soaring food prices many households changed their diets in favour of plant based protein such as lentils or beans instead of animal protein in the form of meat and fish which are much more expensive. . . .’

Read the whole post at Ellen Geerlings’s Blog: Poverty and the food crisis in Egypt, 2 May 2011.

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