Going organic: A viable alternative or just a luxury for the wealthy?

Main photo: Oktalite.com

Organic foods have been on the rise in recent decades and especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the US, organic food sales rose by 12.8 percent to $56.5 billion in 2020, according to the Organic Trade Association. In 2019, sales growth was 4.6 percent.

A similar trend happened in the UK with 12.6 percent growth in sales to £2.79 billion in 2020, the highest growth rate in the UK’s organic food market in 15 years, according to the Soil Association Certification’s 2021 Organic Market Report.

Globally, the organic food market was valued at $201.77 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $221.37 billion by the end of 2021.

Consumer data on organic food sales in Egypt is lacking, thanks to several issues such as absent data collection and the complicated nature of organic certification in Egypt.

Organic farming methods are kinder to the environment than conventional ones in that they do not use chemical inputs and other industrial practices that are harmful to soils, water resources and natural ecosystems.

Agriculture also accounted for 18.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Organic produce has been highlighted as an alternative for consumers to reduce their environmental footprint as organic farms can potentially produce lower emissions than conventional ones.

There are also health concerns over the toxins in chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that seep into the food, which are then ingested by people.

However, a quick browse online or through brick-and-mortar supermarkets will reveal that prices of organic produce are significantly higher than conventional produce. On the online shop for the supermarket chain Metro, a kilogram of regular cucumbers costs 18.99 EGP, while 900 grams of organic cucumbers from the major organic food producer Sekem costs 42.99 EGP.

The organic food market in Egypt might be small, but is triggered by a strong demand

What is the market in Egypt like according to local producers and sellers, then? What are the challenges facing organic agriculture? And can it ever be scaled up to bring prices down and make it more affordable for a wider segment of the Egyptian population?

When Omar El Etriby founded El Mazr3a, he already knew there was high local demand for organic produce. He had primarily worked in the export market and El Mazr3a was in response to local demand.

It began when he started personally selling organic mangoes from his family farm through word-of-mouth. He then took the business online and it took off from there.

“The result was fantastic. People loved the products. They loved the premium quality. They loved the taste. There is demand for organic premium quality produce in Egypt. People are prepared to pay premium for a product that is safe, clean, and tastes like what it used to back in the day before there were lots of pesticides,” he said.

Before El Mazr3a, 95 percent of El Etriby’s products were for export. “I think we’re now 40 percent local and 60 percent export. The market in Egypt is huge,” he adds.

Many other organic brands have sprung up over the years, either producing their goods themselves or specializing in sourcing and selling organic produce. These brands include Sara’s Organic Food, Habiba Organic Farm, Greenolic, Orabi Organic Farm, Naturesta and Rdna. High-end supermarkets like Gourmet also have dedicated organic sections.

“We were surprised to see our first month sales target being achieved on our opening day and realized that there is high demand for the products we are selling,” said Soraya Abouleish, who founded Rdna in 2019. Demand for their products boomed even more since April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed consumers to become more aware of how food affects their immune systems.

According to data collected by Organic Egypt, a project funded by the German government, 0.76 percent of Egypt’s total agricultural land was dedicated to organic vegetable farming in 2018. While being a small percentage overall, it is proportionally larger than the land allocated for organic vegetable farms in the USA and France, at 0.02 and 0.19 percent respectively. The majority of Egyptian organic produce, however, is exported to Europe, the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.

Why, though, is organic food more expensive? Is it the cost of organic farming? Or is it because it is marketed towards high income consumers?

In response to these questions, Hala Barakat, a food researcher and environmental consultant, said “all of the above.”

“But not only that. There is a higher percentage of loss of the [organic] produce and this is why [the price] has to make up for it but it is definitely targeting the higher end of the market.”

Maged El Said, who founded Habiba Organic Farm in 2007, said that the cost of organic farming they do is less expensive but does produce lower quantities.

“To grow organic, you’re going to have to use proper nutrition,” El Etriby said. “If I was to grow 10 acres of tomatoes and use [conventional] farming practices, I would get a hundred tons.”

With organic practices, El Etriby said he would get 40 to 50 percent of a conventional yield. Without the expensive organic inputs that are an alternative to the cheaper chemical and toxic inputs, organic produce is more susceptible to pests and weeds.

Organic certification in Egypt is also a convoluted and costly process. Around 70 percent of Egypt’s food comes from small-scale producers (and that is also the global average) according to Barakat. A lot of Egyptian farming is organic by “accident” due to farmers sticking to old traditional methods that stretch back generations but is not certified organic. Much of the produce which ends up in a street market may already be organic.

The landscape for the legal and institutional framework that regulates and certifies organic food in Egypt is made up of a myriad of government bodies, international organizations, NGOs and private companies.

A law was issued in 2020 mandating the establishment of the General Department of Organic Agriculture within the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR) to overlook organic agricultural affairs and production.

There is also the National Food Safety Authority, the Central Lab of Organic Agriculture and the Egyptian Organization for Standardization and Quality.

Habiba Organic Farm had certification to begin with. “But now I do not have a certificate due to the very high cost,” El Said said, while also citing their exclusively local operation as another reason for not keeping it, as they do not export to Europe.

Acquiring organic certification “is a bit of a gimmick,” according to Barakat as it is only accessible to those who can afford it and is part of the reason behind the high price tags of organic products.

“No regular Egyptian farmer would be able to do this” and the processes are only accessible to companies and university-educated Egyptians.

Organic Egypt claims in its 2021 Organic Agriculture Sector Analysis report that conventional farming is actually more expensive when taking the total costs of its impact into account.

While organic farming may incur higher direct costs of inputs, the wider external costs of conventional farming such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, water pollution and negative impacts on public health are much higher.

“Organic agriculture relies instead on natural processes and biodiversity to ensure the nourishment of the soil, therefore adapting to the local ecosystems instead of using chemical inputs with adverse effects,” the report said, adding that it replenishes the natural environment.

Can organic farming be scaled up to bring prices down to become affordable to the majority of Egyptians? Can it ever replace conventional farming?

“No” El Etriby said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to grow organic produce at a level that the masses would be able to afford”. He added that prices of conventional produce are already high for most Egyptians. He personally came across wholesalers who cannot even afford to buy stocks of tomatoes that come at 2 EGP per kilogram.

He also cites the environmental conditions in Egypt that do not favour organic farming on a large scale, such as water scarcity and increasing salinity levels in the soil.

“The challenge here is that conventional agriculture is highly subsidized which makes it look cheaper,” Abouleish said, adding that some organic products have already become cheaper or are on the verge of coming down to conventional prices.

Barakat cites the fact that Egyptian farmers are forced to use conventional practices by their local agricultural cooperatives who only buy and sell conventional inputs such as genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They all come from the same company owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and sell at subsidized prices to reiterate Abouleish’s point.

Otherwise, she believes it is totally viable for a majority of Egyptian farmers to adopt organic practices and produce enough food to feed the population.

She believes it would work if farming was actually scaled down and “if the land is owned by the people who are cultivating it. If we stop looking at agriculture as an industrial business and look at it more as food produced by the people for the people.”

Abouleish believes that a transition to organic farming should no longer be a choice but a necessity in the era of the global climate crisis.

“Organic agriculture is the only way I see that can meet the challenges we are facing, especially water [scarcity], soil salinity, desertification and climate change mitigtion. Whether certified organic or using sustainable farming practices, it is the only way forward.”

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