This story also appeared on America Public Media's Marketplace.
Anger over food prices helped contribute to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. Through the story of one migrant family, we explore how displaced farmers, angry about agricultural policies that favor “crony capitalists,” now struggle to put food on the table.
Kai Ryssdal: The second phase of Egyptian elections begins today. Votes by overseas Egyptians are going to be counted.
Among the many things ultimately at stake in the first democratic elections there in decades is the price of food. High prices — for bread, in particular — helped fuel the protests in Tahrir Square back in January. Experts say that if Egypt's going to have any chance at feeding its 85 million people, it needs a food policy do-over.
Our series Food for 9 Billion is about the global challenge of feeding a growing world. Today, the market realities of food independence. Sandy Tolan reports from Cairo.
Reporter Sandy Tolan: Egyptians are proud to say that their revolution, swelling up from here in Tahrir Square, was about dignity, and shaking off a dictator. But look back three years earlier to the international food crisis of 2008, and you'll see more groundwork for the revolution.
As global commodity and petroleum prices rose, cooking oil, tomatoes, lentils, rice and wheat soared out of reach for many families. Riots and protests broke out around the world. In Egypt, fights erupted in bread lines and some Egyptians died.
Few things are more important in Egypt than the price of bread. It's at the center of nearly every meal. Like here, in the home of Qotb and Sabah Orany Saber. They live with their three kids in a single room of a Cairo villa.
Sabah Orany Saber: The revolution started because of the price increases. In the old days, nothing like this happened. We used to eat off our land, but here and now, everything is expensive.
Reporter: Qotb didn't used to worry about high prices — as a farmer, he wanted them. His family comes from more than a hundred generations who grew Egypt's food in the fertile Nile silt. Now Qotb is one of more than a million Egyptians who've quit the land. Some estimate the number is closer to four million. No longer growing food, his family spends more than half its income on it.
Qotb Saber: We are unable to save money, so until god makes it easier, we are just taking it step by step.
Reporter: Until 50 years ago, Egypt's farmers grew all of the nation's wheat; today, the country imports more than half. To understand how that happened, let's get out of Cairo.
On a desert road outside of town, a new kind of Egyptian agriculture was born under former President Mubarak.
Tarek Tawfik: I went to look at the land where the factory would be built and it was just pure desert.
Reporter:Twenty-five years ago, Mubarak invited investors to reclaim the desert. One of the first to arrive was Tarek Tawfik. He's part of a wealthy merchant class that worked with capital from Egypt and the Gulf to green up the desert with underground water and grow — not wheat for Egypt's daily bread — but more profitable grapes and strawberries for Europe.
Tawfik: And then in no time, there was this factory built up, farms set up, three or four other factories mushroomed out of this factory.
Reporter: Now some in Egypt say, why should these guys use our precious water to send luxury fruit to the French?
The answer according to free market economists is something called comparative advantage. It's a strategy promoted heavily here and around the world by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Grow what you can for domestic consumption, and import the rest using cash from these high-value export crops.
But this was no free market: The model under Mubarak was distorted, built on favors. And cash never really trickled down.
Magda Kandil: When we went to the extreme in the process of liberalizing the economy, we brought people who have nothing to do with agriculture.
Reporter: Egyptian economist Magda Kandil says in the Mubarak era, crony capitalism ruled.
Kandil: They are entrepreneurs, some of them live abroad, live in the U.S. They've been capitalizing on connections that the average farmer cannot have in terms of marketing, economy of scale, access to water, access to technology, access to subsidized fuel, access to subsidized fertilizers. So I'm against this model because it doesn't help the social agenda.
Reporter: Another thing that didn't help: Pushing millions of farmers off the land. How'd that happen?
Let's hop on the scooter of a guy named Hussein Abdel Wahab Heyba. He's resplendent in his turban and full-length white robe. Hussein comes from the farming district of Al Fayoum, a couple of hours south of the desert farms. He's seen 80 percent of his friends and family leave his village.
The causes were many. Families grew too big for a single plot; fertilizer got too expensive; and under Mubarak-era laws, land rents got so high that farmers couldn't afford them anymore. Just as bad, say local farmers: Land and water were stolen. Hussein says his father received two acres from President Nasser's land reform in the 1950s. But four decades later, Mubarak's police state took it away and gave it back to the original landlords.
Hussein Abdel Wahab Heyba: This is our main source of water, that what used to cultivate all our old land from before. Look here, right here in front of you.
Reporter: Hussein stands next to a large green water wheel, where he says local farmers' historic flow shrunk to a trickle.
Heyba: This is a whole scheme. This guy was connected with the police force, with the enforcers in the government. It was given to the cronies, to the families, to the well-connected people, to the people who serve their purposes. This is why there was a revolution.
Reporter: During the Arab Spring, Hussein and his friends traded shifts, heading toward Tahrir in waves of minivans from the farmland in Al Fayoum, demanding help for farmers wanting to stay on the land and grow food for Egyptians.
Had they bumped into Mamdou Hamza, they would have found a kindred spirit. Hamza's a prominent engineer who spent countless days and nights at Tahrir, as a kind of godfather of the revolution.
Hamza says Egypt is vulnerable to another global food crisis because it doesn't grow enough for its own bread.
Mamdou Hamza: That is the only way you can save the future agriculture of Egypt. Then you can cultivate the crops you need to minimize the gap between what we need and what we produce.
Reporter: But that won't happen simply by rooting out corruption and making it easier for farmers to stay put. The country will need to modernize: More efficient irrigation, larger land plots through farmer cooperatives, criminalizing land grabs around the fertile delta.
Otherwise, he says, the country will be vulnerable to price spikes in the global food supply, and to the political agendas of wheat- exporting countries like Russia and the United States.
Hamza: It could happen! People could use it strategically against us to push us to do things we should not, would not otherwise like to do.
Reporter: Making Egypt more self-reliant in food is not exactly the top item on Egypt's political agenda — not when a new parliament will be fighting simply to implement democracy amidst military control.
But from Mexico to Ghana, Bangladesh to the Philippines, citizens' groups and some national leaders link food self-suffiency with national security. They say the international markets have failed. It's time to grow more of our own at home.
In Cairo, I'm Sandy Tolan for Marketplace.
Ryssdal: Our series Food for 9 Billion is a collaboration with Homelands Productions, PBS Newshour and the Center for Investigative Reporting. You'll find earlier episodes here. Sandy had help with his reporting from Charlotte Buchen.