Today, the world asks "Who will rule Egypt?" Tomorrow, the world will ask, "Who will feed Egypt?" For regardless of which leader or faction emerges triumphant in the Egyptian power struggle, the new leadership will have to feed a population that is heavily dependent upon food subsidies and imported grain for its survival. And that will be a daunting task.
There was a time when Egypt was the breadbasket of the civilized world. The Roman Empire was long sustained by Egyptian wheat. Today, Egypt imports about half of its wheat, corn and other staples, and spends about $15 billion a year in food subsidies.
Few nations are as dependent on food imports as Egypt. It is, in fact, the world's largest importer of wheat. It's no coincidence that the current turmoil coincided with a surge in wheat commodity prices. Food inflation was far from the only reason people took to the streets, but it was a contributing factor. Food prices in Egypt have risen 17 percent in the past year, and in a country where 40 percent of the population lives near or below the poverty line, that's no small matter.
The immediate food challenge in Egypt is logistical. The street demonstrations have temporarily shut down the food distribution chain, from grain warehouses to bakeries. Within a matter of hours or days, major food shortages could develop, and add to the chaos that is now enveloping the country.
While reports differ as to how extensive Egypt's grain reserves are, a shut off of grain imports would imperil Egypt's ability to feed itself. The political turmoil has already weakened Egypt's credit rating, and a prolonged power struggle could easily endanger the country's ability to import more wheat.
The United States and Europe might offer some assistance. Given Egypt's strategic importance, that would make sense. But don't count on it. Pakistan is of enormous strategic interest to the U.S. and the West, but when floods devastated Pakistan last year, U.S. and other donor nation assistance fell far short of what was needed to address the crisis.
The larger question, however, is how will Egypt feed itself in the future. The current political crisis is likely to slow economic growth and scare away foreign investors. Even before the rioting, Egypt was not growing fast enough to reduce the vast number of unemployed young people. Unemployment has remained high for years.
Egypt's population , currently 81 million, is growing at 2 percent a year. By 2025, its population could reach 104 million, and by 2050 it population could be close to 140 million, an increase of 70 percent.
Rising population will mean less land available for agriculture, and if upstream usage of Nile river water increases, as appears likely, there could be less water for Egyptian farmers in the years ahead. Egypt's dependence on imported food will likely grow.
And Egypt, of course, is not the only country in the world that is increasingly dependent on food imports for survival. To feed its people in the decades ahead, Egypt will need to outbid other consumers of wheat for wheat imports, and that will require a booming economy. Otherwise, food subsidies will fail and Egypt's poor will be at the mercy of world food prices.
As uncertain as Egypt's political future is at this juncture, its food outlook is even more worrisome.