Agriculture is strongly associated with Ancient Egypt, thanks to the year-round, life-sustaining waters of the Nile.
The enterprise must have been highly successful, as the Egyptian agricultural system along the Nile river valley supported the flourishing of one of the most magnificent civilizations of the world, beginning circa 3000 BC.
The agricultural surplus must have been significant, allowing the Egyptians to think of the sort of ambitious projects that they routinely engaged in.
This was not only thanks to the Nile Delta’s fertility, but also because ancient Egyptians had mastered the art of farming and irrigation, using innovative techniques, which enabled them to cultivate a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, and fruit.
The Egyptian people relied on agriculture for more than just the production of food. Their creative use of plant species manifested in areas ranging from medicinal purposes to religious rituals, as well as in the manufacturing of ingenious products such as papyrus.
“Over 2000 different species of flowering or aromatic plants have been found in tombs,” notes an overview article by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO).
Simply put, without its agricultural prowess and fertile farmlands, the Egyptian civilization would not have thrived for thousands of years in quite the way it did.
Pharos and political systems may have come and gone, but agriculture has not lost its importance. The sector continues to be an important part of the nation’s modern economy, employing around a third of the workforce and accounting for some 15% of the GDP.
Egypt’s notable crops in modern times include sugar beet, wheat, grapes, and dates. However, one crop that takes center stage is sugarcane, with a production quantity of roughly 15 million metric tons in 2020, according to data from the FAO.
Also of note are potatoes, cotton, and fresh citrus fruit, over five million tons of which are exported to global markets each year. The country’s Agricultural Export Council believes that the sector has seen a an additional 10% growth in this batch of products during the 2021-2022 export season.
Hopes are high for the 2023 season thanks to relatively favorable climactic conditions. What is more, “Russia, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Bangladesh, India, United Arab Emirates, China, United Kingdom, Malaysia, and Sultanate Oman are likely to remain Egypt’s top ten export destinations for fresh oranges,” according to an attaché report released by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Much potential, however, remains to be unlocked. “Egypt’s agriculture sector is dominated by small farms using traditional practices that do not meet international standards,” according to the USAID. Despite the smallholding model and traditional farming methods, “since the late 1990s, Egypt has increased agricultural export revenue by 1,500 percent with USAID support.”
The introduction of modern and sustainable agricultural practices such as the clustering of farmlands can be a game-changer as it will generate economies of scale.
Irrigation is yet another factor to consider. Egypt is famously a dry country with as little as 80mm of annual rainfall. Even the coastal city of Alexandria does not receive more than 230mm per year. Under such conditions, the Nile remains the country’s best hope—if not the only hope—for agriculture.
Lake Nasser, situated behind the Aswan High Dam on the Nile may be one of the largest manmade water reservoirs in the world, but it is not bottomless. Wasteful and outdated irrigation methods are squandering large amounts of the lake’s precision reserves.
The traditional irrigation methods practiced in the region relies mainly on flood-surface irrigation, which is far from ideal in a hot, sunny environment where evaporation is an ever-present factor.
The country’s the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation is encouraging farmers to instead opt for drip irrigation—a method that uses a relatively simple array of pipes and pumps to directly deliver water and nutrients to the roots of the plants.
The ministry has reported that those farmers who have adopted this method since 2020 have already reported a 30% growth in productivity while halving their water consumption. This method, as such, is likely to pay for itself in the long-run, while making the industry more sustainable.