Why did Egypt really back down on Russian wheat import ban?

03.10.2016

On Sept. 21, the Egyptian Cabinet decided to authorize the import of ergot-infected wheat in accordance with Egyptian regulations adopted in 2010 that permit the import of wheat containing levels of .05% of ergot or lower. This negated a prior decision taken in late August, when the Ministry of Agriculture announced that it was imposing a zero-tolerance policy for ergot, banning the import of wheat containing any quantity of the fungus.

The Cabinet said it would not permit the import of wheat containing ergot levels exceeding those allowed for by Egypt’s 2010 guidelines. They noted that these guidelines were in line with standards determined by international agencies specializing in the field — such as the Codex Alimantarius and the Food and Agriculture Organization. They also said that fears concerning ergot — such as that imported wheat containing ergot was carcinogenic and harmful to public health — was utterly without foundation.

Nadir Nur al-Din, a professor at the College of Agriculture at Cairo University and an adviser to the former minister of supply at the General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), criticized the Egyptian government’s decision to import wheat containing even trace amounts of ergot.

Nur al-Din told Al-Monitor that Egypt had never imported wheat containing ergot throughout its history. “The government is claiming that a law from 2010 exists that authorizes it,” he said, “yet if that’s true, why did the minister of supply decide to issue his decision last July under pressure from former Minister of Supply Khalid Hanafy to permit the import of wheat meeting the .05% standard, only to renege at the end of August. [Originally,] he decided that imported wheat had to be completely free of ergot.”

On Sept. 22, Eid Hawash, the spokesman for the minister of agriculture, was dismissed from his post after making remarks about the pressures to which the Agriculture Ministry had been subjected over the latest decision to permit the import of wheat containing quantities of ergot. This came several days after the minister’s decision to issue the import ban, ostensibly out of concern for Egyptians’ health and the quality of produce.

Nur al-Din attributed the reason for the government's permitting the import of a quantity of ergot in wheat to pressure from businessmen and importers. They apparently stood to earn an additional $875 million in profits if wheat containing ergot were authorized for import.

The dispute concerning the quantity of ergot in wheat imports has threatened to halt imports of Russian wheat to Egypt at a time when Moscow is slated to harvest the largest wheat crop since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Egypt purchased 6 million tons of Russian wheat in the 2015-16 market year, which concluded June 30 — in other words, a quarter of Russia’s wheat exports for that period. The GASC had purchased 540,000 tons of Russian wheat as of July, before the new limitations on importing ergot-infected wheat were issued.

Egypt imports 11 million tons of wheat annually, ranking it as the largest wheat importer in the world. Of these, 5 million tons are imported by the government through its various agencies, while the remaining 6 million tons are imported by the private sector, according to previous government statements.

On Sept. 23, Russian Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov said his country would resume exports of wheat to Egypt once the restrictions previously imposed on wheat imports were removed.

Russia’s decision followed threats issued Sept. 13 to ban the import of Egyptian citrus. Russian Minister of Agriculture Alexander Tkachev on Sept. 22 decided to use the step as a means to exert pressure on Egypt, according to Reuters. The Russian Food Safety Board issued a statement saying that it had reasons for concern, which it described as “systematic violations of international requirements pertaining to vegetable sanitation standards” in “massive quantities” of Egyptian citrus.

Nur al-Din said the Egyptian government relied upon international reports permitting the import of ergot-infected wheat, but that in his view “this was inappropriate — the issue was discretionary, not mandatory.” He said “the mistake made by Agriculture Minister Issam Fayyid was in attempting to implement a decision to ban the ergot-infected wheat — which he made in August — on a retroactive basis. Egypt had concluded a 2 million ton agreement for importing ergot-infected wheat, mostly from Russia, France and America. He should have waited until after these quantities of wheat had been unloaded and then implemented the decision. That’s what put the government in such an embarrassing moment, after which it backed off.”

On Sept. 26, following consultations between Egypt and Russia, Egyptian Minister of Trade and Manufacturing Tariq Qabil announced his expectation that the crisis of Russia’s “temporary” ban on importing Egyptian agricultural products would be resolved. He said the Russian side expressed a great deal of understanding and responsiveness. Shortly afterward, Sergey Dankvert — the head of the Russian Food Safety Board — said his country had decided to lift the ban on Egyptian citrus imports.

The spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Manufacturing, Yasir Jabir, denied that the Russian decision was at all related to Egypt’s refusal or acceptance of allowing the import of Russian wheat containing quantities of ergot.

Russia imported $153 million worth of Egyptian citrus in 2015, accounting for 13% of Russia’s total citrus imports. Egypt’s total agricultural exports to Russia amounted to $281 million.

Amr Qandil, the head of the Preventive Medicine Section of the Ministry of Health, said a study of the dangers of ergot fungus showed that the fungus could not thrive in Egypt. He added that any discussion of its possible effects on public health were simply rumors aiming to undermine security and stability.

Nur al-Din attacked Qandil’s statements; he claimed they expressed a distortion of the facts. Nur al-Din said, “If we speak about the danger of ergot fungus, we should be discussing therapeutic and pharmacological medicine, not preventive medicine, in order to treat the fungus’ poisonous secretions.”

He said, "Ergot is dangerous to Egyptians’ general health and to the agricultural environment.” Nur al-Din added that “the fungus causes sickness, including hallucinations, paralysis and even death. In addition, it weakens a person’s circulatory system and its toxins [can] cause miscarriages in pregnant women. Moreover, there is its impact on the agricultural environment, where 22 other crops were introduced to the fungus while they were being stored in barns and silos in Egypt’s various governorates.”

The crisis of ergot-infected wheat did not pop up in the last few days alone. In March, Saad Moussa, head of the Central Administration for Agricultural Quarantine, was dismissed from his post after criticizing the Egyptian government, saying that ergot-infected wheat should not be permitted into Egypt in accordance with the first article of the Agricultural Quarantine Statute 3007 of 2001. This prompted a controversy about the dangers to public health and Egyptian agriculture, following the minister of agriculture’s authorization of imports of wheat that contain minuscule quantities of ergot.

Nur al-Din said, “The Egyptian government must undertake the work of screening infected wheat from healthy wheat, at its own expense. Such an effort would not, realistically, cost more than 1% to 3% of the import’s overall cost.”


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