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Sowing the seeds of self-sufficiency in cereal output

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Two out of every 5 ''baladi'' brown loaves, the staple of Egypt, are baked from American wheat. Now Egypt, once the granary of the Roman Empire, is seeking to shed its dependence on grain imports and achieve self-sufficiency in cereal production within seven years.

It hopes to do this by mechanizing for higher crop yields from each field, by using improved seed varieties, and by raising prices paid to farmers. Some, however, doubt if Egypt can achieve this target, or indeed should try to.

President Mubarak's minister of agriculture and food security, Dr. Youssef Wali, has no doubts on either score. He explains that the goal is strategic rather than strictly economic. ''When you lose control of grains you lose your independence. This administration of Mubarak is not like previous administrations; it is a nationalistic administration.''

Egypt became a net food importer for the first time in 1974. Since then the gap between consumption and production has widened alarmingly. Food imports are now more than $4 billion a year and Egypt imports over half its staple commodities, including 75 percent of its wheat.

Consumption is growing at around 8 percent annually, because there are another 1.2 million mouths to feed every year. At the same time agricultural production is increasing at only about 2 percent a year.

There have been some encouraging successes in poultry production, however, and imported eggs and chickens should soon be a thing of the past.

The problem is also exacerbated by an almost total lack of investment in agriculture during the Nasser period, when state funds were concentrated on prestigious but costly industrial enterprises.

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