In Egypt, when you take the historical view on a topic, you really take the historical view. At the symposium "The Food Question In The Middle East," yesterday at the American University in Cairo (AUC), food researcher and environmentalist Hala Barakat took the mostly academic audience back more than 6,000 years to the earliest evidenced crops and food use.
"The Food Question in the Middle East" was an effort by the AUC scholarly publication Cairo Papers in Social Science to bring critical attention to some of the key issues around food cultures, hunger, food aid, food sovereignty and food security in the region. It brought together environmentalists, aid workers, social anthropologists, scholars and social entrepreneurs in an attempt to tap the ever-present, but rarely discussed regional politics that lie beneath the surface of the topic of what we eat.
What's in a national cuisine?
At the heart of Barakat’s presentation—which ranged across prehistoric seed grinders to Mamluk feasting tables—was the idea that a 'true' national cuisine is difficult to define. Egypt has been importing and naturalising non-native crops and culinary influences throughout its long history. Just as koshary was introduced by the British in the 1940s to be embraced as a 'true' Egyptian dish, so today are influences from countries like USA, Indonesia and China impacting current eating tastes.
Barakat said that it is important to distinguish between the 'local' in the ecological sense, and in the nationalist sense, because this has implications for food policy and activism.
This observation became highly relevant both to the first panel and the last one of the day. Sociologist Saker El-Nour, presenting later in the day, also questioned the idea of an unchanging agricultural identity. By looking at a single Lebanese village, he demonstrated the vast changes in agricultural dynamics in just one century.
He traced how, like much of the country, the village of Sinay has moved from a traditional agri-food system with feudal relations, to the situation we recognise today: after the civil war, the westernisation and globalization of the food supply, Syrian migration, changing labour relations, and the real estate boom have all had their impact.
With Egypt's industrial food production, in which the highest-grade produce is mostly exported, often only the poorest food is left for the working classes. This raises new questions of what we mean by 'local' cuisine.
The work of inclusive social business Nawaya, presented by Sara El-Sayed and Sara Pozzi, is attempting to work with these questions in present-day Egypt. Their enterprise recognises that local food crops are not just nutritionally important but are part of a long-evolving cultural heritage. With rural women, they have been working on a revival of interest in 'baladi' (local) produce, such as the begawy chicken, a native and mostly forgotten breed. This is partly as a means of preserving cultural heritage, but also reawakening rural people's knowledge of and agency over the food system.
The means with which Nawaya are currently doing this is by appealing to middle-class interests by developing artisanal products and taking them to market in attractive ways. For this to succeed, as El-Sayed pointed out, this means making 'baladi' food 'trendy' again.
The second panel looked at the relationship between food distribution and politics. Former aid worker and writer Khaled Mansour stated that despite the best intentions of humanitarian food agencies such as the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), they operate in a political environment.
He described how the UN's stated intention to work neutrally and with impartiality—i.e., distributing to the hungry on the basis of need, not political affiliation—is being compromised. He claims that aid distribution is in large part dictated by multiple forces on the ground. Furthermore, around 80% of food aid is provided by a small number of countries, giving them huge clout.
The four million people reached by food aid in Syria, for example, are almost exclusively under government control, because these are the places for which the UN has negotiated clearance to distribute. Between 1st January and 31st August 2015, the WFP only managed to reach 0.6% of the hungry outside of these limited areas. The UN has the legal power to deliver aid without government permission, but securing safe passage—in areas that can change hands several times a day—is another matter altogether. He believes that the resulting cooperation erodes trust in the UN’s mission, allowing armed factions to consolidate their rule.
Scholar Malak Rouchdy's presentation traced the history of hunger in Egypt in the mid-2000s, and its relationship to the 2011 uprising.
She relates how in 2006, in response to food shortages, the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB) was founded by well-connected members of the business elite, with immense fanfare. The EFB launched a voucher system that by 2012 had a budget of EGP 106 million. It cast itself in the role of the facilitator of good community morality, allowing all Egyptians to fulfil their religious obligations.
The EFB received a boost to its profile in 2008, when food shortages reached chronic levels. These were largely portrayed by the Mubarak government as the result of a perfect storm of global weather patterns and biofuel demand affecting global food production globally, and an Egyptian population growing at 7%. The idea that scarcity is endemic to any expanding developing country immediately de-politicised the question. What was not brought into this telling of the story, was Egypt's adoption of World Bank and IMF-recommended policies to limit food subsidies.
Rouchdy reminded the audience that the World Food Program's definition of hunger not only discusses straightforward starvation, but long-term lack of access to sufficient food to participate effectively in society beyond mere survival. However, in the rhetoric of the NDP and of the EFB, the hungry are reduced to passive recipients of charity rather than active participants in the country.
Food security or land grabs?
In the final panel, PhD candidate Christian Handerson presented a paper discussing his research into the agricultural investments by Gulf countries in Sudan and Egypt.
In recent years, due to a depleted water supply, the question of food security has become an issue in the Gulf. In order to sustain its supplies, Gulf-based companies have acquired huge areas of land in these countries in order to farm crops such as alfalfa, which feeds their livestock herds. Handerson points out that the land offered to the Gulf has been acquired at well below its natural value, and the Gulf investors have received preferential rates on the fuel and water needed to farm the land—amounting, he argues, to a form of government subsidy.
Recently the investors have switched to wheat, which is to be sold to Egypt at around US $400 per ton rather than the market rate of around $300 per ton. It is possible, states Handerson, that this picture could be conceived as a second state subsidy of the Gulf investors. Meanwhile, the marketing of these farm projects hold a great deal of inspiring imagery and empowering language, but little information. Access to the land itself requires a government permit, and as such, Handerson's research is currently tentative.
As the grown crops appear to be for the Gulf's high-value food market rather than its basics, Handerson questions whether this enterprise and investment in Egypt and Sudan is related to food security at all.
Food security versus food sovereignty
In both the audience and the speakers, the day’s discussions were underpinned by a shared sense that the discussion of food in the region must move on from 'food security (the simple availability of enough food) to 'food sovereignty,' which embeds the right to food within social justice debates. In essense, food sovereignty emphasises the rights of communities to have an informed, just and fulfilling stake in their own food production, over and above trade concerns.
Throughout the presentations, whether it's a bowl of koshary or an egg laid by a begawy chicken, we learned that a good meal is about far more than just a full stomach.
Image by Maria Keays, shared via Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0