Sowing the seeds of self-sufficiency in cereal output

Two out of every 5 ''baladi'' brown loaves, the staple of Egypt, are baked from American wheat. Now Egypt, once the granary of the Roman Empire, is seeking to shed its dependence on grain imports and achieve self-sufficiency in cereal production within seven years.

It hopes to do this by mechanizing for higher crop yields from each field, by using improved seed varieties, and by raising prices paid to farmers. Some, however, doubt if Egypt can achieve this target, or indeed should try to.

President Mubarak's minister of agriculture and food security, Dr. Youssef Wali, has no doubts on either score. He explains that the goal is strategic rather than strictly economic. ''When you lose control of grains you lose your independence. This administration of Mubarak is not like previous administrations; it is a nationalistic administration.''

Egypt became a net food importer for the first time in 1974. Since then the gap between consumption and production has widened alarmingly. Food imports are now more than $4 billion a year and Egypt imports over half its staple commodities, including 75 percent of its wheat.

Consumption is growing at around 8 percent annually, because there are another 1.2 million mouths to feed every year. At the same time agricultural production is increasing at only about 2 percent a year.

There have been some encouraging successes in poultry production, however, and imported eggs and chickens should soon be a thing of the past.

The problem is also exacerbated by an almost total lack of investment in agriculture during the Nasser period, when state funds were concentrated on prestigious but costly industrial enterprises.

In line with the Mubarak administration's declared policy of increasing domestic production in all spheres, Dr. Wali is aiming to raise maize production 100 percent, from 3.5 million tons; rice production 1 million tons, from 2.23 million tons; and wheat production 80 percent, from 1.9 million tons.

Rather than aiming at self-sufficiency in each particular grain or cereal, Dr. Wali is treating grains collectively as a single sector. He thus wants to raise export of rice by 1 million tons, which at present world prices could pay for imports of 3 million tons of wheat.

Dr. Wali's targets are somewhat higher than the potential yields noted by others.

A team of agricultural experts sent by President Reagan last year declared that cereal yields could be raised by some 50 to 75 percent - a smaller increase than Dr. Wali's target. The mission, headed by Dr. E. T. York of the University of Florida, recommended that Egypt concentrate on growing crops for which it had a comparative advantage. Because of its year-round sunshine and water, Egypt should grow high-value horticultural crops for export.

Dr. York noted that Egyptian yields for fruit and vegetables are among the highest in the world but that Egypt has the potential to raise yields of certain vegetables between 160 and 260 percent.

There are a number of constraints to increased production, Dr. York states in his report. In line with international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he urges the government to raise prices paid to farmers to world levels. The state now buys quotas of wheat, rice, and sugar at fixed prices and buys the entire cotton crop for little over production cost.

The Americans say that higher prices paid to farmers would encourage them to invest in machinery. Dr. Wali says experience shows that farmers are already prepared to invest in new technology.

Greater mechanization is inevitable. The migration of farm workers to the cities or the Gulf states has led to a shortage of manpower.

A pilot project in the delta Governorate of Dekehlia to sell farmers rice transplanters imported from Japan has been highly successful. Together with improved strains, they have boosted average rice yields from 2.38 tons an acre to between 3.6 and 4.5 tons.

Dr. York believes Egypt does not have a comparative advantage in animal husbandry. Like earlier World Bank team members he is concerned that a third of Egypt's 6 million acres of arable land are planted with clover for animal fodder during the winter months.

But clover plays an important part in the crop cycle in Egypt, where because of climatic conditions and constant water availability three crops a year are possible.

Clover fixes nitrates in the soil, thus saving on imports of chemical fertilizers. And the animals themselves - buffaloes and cattle - plow, operate irrigation pumps, and provide a principal source of milk as well as meat.

By contrast, such European Community nations as France and Ireland, among others, are trying to improve dairy production and animal husbandry.

There are sound economic reasons. Egypt can obtain wheat at giveaway prices from generous aid donors, particularly through the so-called ''PL 480'' sales from the United States. France and Australia also give good credit terms. Second , the IMF price index for meat prices since 1975 has risen from 100 to 196, while over the same period wheat has risen to only 115.

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