Quinoa in your Koshari? The grainy road ahead for Egyptian rice

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Anyone who is a fan of Egyptian food knows about koshari – a hearty, carb-rich dish, mainly consisting of rice, pasta, chickpeas and lentils.

Now, imagine swapping the rice with quinoa.

While the idea isn't new, not many chefs have made the ingredient swap - but now may just be the right time for quinoa to shine in Egyptian cuisine.

Egypt’s government is now promoting cultivation of the highly nutritious quinoa grain amid a drive to reduce dependence on wheat and rice, while saving water.

While rice, on average, requires 6,000 cubic meters of water per 1.038 acres, quinoa needs less than 500 cubic meters.

The high protein, zinc and calcium benefits of quinoa also support the call for its increased cultivation.

The Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources recently announced the reduction of areas available for rice cultivation by more than 50%.

The new decision stipulates cultivating rice only the in particular Nile Delta governorates and penalizing farmers that do not comply. The new system is to be implemented from May to September.

The ministry cited the necessity of saving water since rice is known to take two and half times the amounts of water needed for crops like maize and wheat and fields in which rice is grown need to be flooded with water at the time of harvest.

Agricultural Law number 53 for the year 1966 was also modified so that violations of restrictions will include a jail sentence of up to six months and an LE 3,000-20,000 fine per acre or part of an acre in addition to removing the crops in the violating areas at the expense of the farmers.

The decision and the modifications to the law stirred much controversy on different fronts whether regarding the impact on farmers and consumers or the possible association with an impending water crisis.

Saving water?

Hussein Abu Saddam, head of the Farmers’ Syndicate, said that when contacting the ministry to know the reason for the restriction, which he labelled unfair for farmers, he was told that it was because the Renaissance Dam. However, he argued that the restriction will not save water as claimed by the ministry.

“Rice needs only 120 days to be harvested, which is the time the fields need to be flooded, unlike other summer crops that require much more time,” he said.

“Plus, most rice fields are mostly irrigated with agricultural wastewater and not drinking water.” Abu Saddam added that the ministry did not offer alternatives to farmers who won’t be able to cultivate rice.

“Cotton can be an alternative, but its profit is much less than rice since one acre costs LE 22,000 and the return is LE 30,000, that is a profit of only LE 8,000 in four months,” he explained. “Maize is another alternative, but high salinity lands do not yield much in the case of maize unlike rice.”

Another problem for farmers, Abu Saddam noted, is that many of them have lands that are only fit for cultivating rice.

“This means they will cultivate rice anyway, which not only subjects them to the penalty, but also to the possibility of removing their crops all together as we heard from ministry officials.”

Agricultural expert Nader Nour al-Din noted that consumption of rice per citizen in Egypt is estimated at 48 kilograms annually, which means the necessity of cultivating 1.5 million acres per year to reach self-sufficiency without surplus for export.

He also added that the cultivation of rice is important for the soil. “Cultivating rice is considered an alternative to the flooding of the Nile since it washes off the salt in lands that are close to the sea, hence keeps those lands fit for cultivation in the first place,” he explained.

“Stopping the cultivation of rice will gradually increase their salinity until they eventually become barren, which in turn will aggravate the food security crisis.” Nour al-Din added that decreasing the cultivation of rice by 50% would lead to importing around two million tons annually.

“This will lead to increasing the price of rice, which is not fair for consumers. Also, Egyptians do not like Indian, Pakistani, or Filipino rice, which actually tastes entirely different from Egyptian rice.”

Mohsen al-Batran, former deputy agriculture minister, supported the restriction, which he said should have been initiated years ago.

“Such restrictions are based on the ‘proposed crop structure,’ which means determining the distribution of crops based on the needs of all Egyptians,” he said.

“For example, if we need to increase self-sufficiency in wheat, we have to increase areas for the cultivation of wheat by around 200,000 acres.”

When it comes to rice, Batran explained, farmers cultivate it without taking into consideration actual needs at a given time or warnings about reducing water consumption.

“The government used to impose fines before, but suppliers would strike deals with farmers so that they pay their fines and buy the rice to export it.”

The result, he added, was that several other lands were deprived of water because of the amount of water consumed in cultivating rice, which leads to a decline in other vital crops.

“Such restriction looks at the bigger picture so that it ensures both food and water safety for the entire population and makes sure that all citizens get their needs of both.”

In response to critics who said that other crops consume large amounts of water such as sugarcane and bananas, professor of agricultural economics Gamal Seyam argued that they are a different case.

“All sugar factories in Upper Egypt depend on sugarcane so we cannot reduce the lands in which it is cultivated,” he said. “As for bananas, they are irrigated by subterranean water.”

Renaissance Dam

Political analyst and expert at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Hani Raslan said that the new restrictions are associated even if indirectly with the Renaissance Dam crisis.

“Filling the reservoir of the dam will be accompanied by a decrease in the amounts of water that reach Egypt,” he said.

“Plus, lack of progress in the negotiations over the dam confirmed that this will be happening soon.” Raslan added that another factor is that Egypt’s share of Nile water was determined in 1950s when the population was 25 million.

“Now, the number is estimated at around 104 million.”

Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abel Aati stated, however, that the new restrictions have nothing to do with the Renaissance Dam.

“The ministry has been planning the reduction of lands in which rice is cultivated before the Renaissance Dam crisis started because with the population increase. We needed to rationalize the consumption of water anyway.”