Interview with Saker El Nour: Capitalist agriculture, food production and the ecological crisis.

The current global pandemic is an opportunity to put forward ideas around food sovereignty.

The concept of “food security” ignores the role of food producers, while “food sovereignty” defends their rights.

Saker EL Nour

North African countries have witnessed for decades the intensification of an industrial export-led agriculture (agribusiness). This model has negative consequences on subsistence agriculture and on small-scale farmers and other food producers. In the current global pandemic, major problems, such as food dependence and loss of sovereignty, come to the surface and become very apparent. And such exceptional moments offer us the opportunity to advance ideas around “food sovereignty” and emphasise their emancipator content. In this interview with Saker El Nour, Egyptian researcher in agrarian studies, we attempted to shed some light on these issues.

Could you tell to us a little about yourself, your work and research interests?

First, I got a bachelor degree in agricultural production from Sohag University in 2000. In 2003 I have obtained my diploma in human development from the National Planning Institute in Cairo. After that, I joined the department of Agriculture Economics at the faculty of Agriculture (Minya university), in which I got my master in Rural Sociology and Agricultural Economy in 2005. In 2013, I have finished my doctoral theses in social sciences at Paris Nanterre University (Université Paris Nanterre).

After that I worked as an Assistant-Professor of rural sociology at Qena faculty of Agriculture, and as a post-doctoral fellow at École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), and the Euro-med civilization museum (MuCEM) in Marseille. I have also obtained a fellowship at the American University in Beirut.

In the recent years, I have conducted field research in rural areas in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon. And I was lucky to encounter and work with several researchers and activists in the field of rural studies and agrarian questions in the Arab region. My research interests are focused around rural poverty, anti-poverty policies, agrarian policies, political economy of food, rural social movements, food sovereignty and agro-ecology.
My basic concern in my research is to provide a critical analysis of food production and small farmers’ situation in the Arab world. So, I tend to bring together a macro-analysis of the political economy of food production and a micro-analysis of the main agents, strategies, adaption tools and resistance that farmers adopt in the region.   


The global hegemonic discourse about food security implies that it’s the capitalist agriculture/agribusiness that feeds the world. This discourse tends to under-value the role of small-scale and family farmers and considers them an obstacle in the face of the development of the global industrial food system. What is your take on these views?

I think this dominant discourse is contradicting the reality that most of food production in the world, especially in the Global South is produced by small farmers. And it’s these peasants who are providing most of the food we consume today.  According to a 2014 report from FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), holdings of less than 1 hectare, constitute 72 % of all farms around the world, but they control only 8% of the global agricultural land. In the same report you can see that farms between 1-2 hectares constitute 12% of farms globally and control around 4% of the land. In contrast, only 1 % of farms have more than 50 hectares and control 65% of the global agricultural land. Small and medium-scale farmers control about 35% of the land but produce 70-80% of the food we eat. These statistics demonstrate that capitalist agriculture is not only incapable of adequately producing our food but is also destructive to humans and nature through its modes of production and exhaustion of natural resources.                

Some talk about “food sovereignty” instead of “food security”. Is there a difference between them? And which one serves the interests of people and marginalized classes? 

As for the difference between food sovereignty and food security, first I’d like to give a general definition of both terms before proceeding to explain the difference between them. According to the food and agriculture organization (FAO), food security means the material, social and economic ability of everyone to access safe and nutritious food in sufficient quantities, in order to meet their needs and food preferences so that they enjoy an active and healthy life. Building on this definition, four dimensions of food security can be identified: food availability, economic and physical access to food, and food use and stability over time. It’s clear here that food security doesn’t mean the state’s commitment to food production, but the provision of food by any means, such as production, import, or food aid.

The concept of food sovereignty, which has been put forward by the international peasant’s social movement, La Via Campesina, means “the right of peoples, local communities and countries to define their policies for agriculture, employment, fishing, food, and lands that are environmentally, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances, and that include true access to food and the production of Food, which means that all people have the right to safe and culturally appropriate nutrition as well as the right to access means of production and the ability to support themselves and their communities.” 

Hence, it can be said that the fundamental difference between the concepts of “food sovereignty” and “food security” is that the former gives priority to the rights of people and communities to produce and consume food over commercial considerations. It emphasises the localisation of food systems, as the access and marketing of food at the local and regional levels must be a priority over supplying global markets. Food, according to the principle of food sovereignty is a right, not a commodity subject to the profit motive.

On the other hand, at a time when the role of food producers is ignored by the concept of “food security”, “food sovereignty” affirms the rights of farmers and other food producers to live and work in dignity and puts control over land, grazing, water, seeds and livestock in their hands and respects their rights. Finally, “food sovereignty” requires production and distribution systems to protect natural resources and reduce pollutant gas emissions, avoiding as much as possible industrial energy-intensive methods that harm the environment and the health of those who produce and consume food. As a guiding framework for the agricultural economy, “food sovereignty” is based on the model of agro-ecology as a basis for agricultural production and regulating the relationship between farmers and natural resources.

As for the concept of food security, it does not give importance to how food is produced, to where it comes from and to those who produce it in the first place!

In your latest commentary, you drew attention to small peasants and agricultural workers in light of the coronavirus epidemic in Egypt. You called them “silent fighters” and “anonymous heroes”. Tell us more about that.

The press and media coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Egypt completely neglected the role played by farmers and agricultural workers as they continued provisioning food to citizens despite the danger to their lives. I wanted therefore to highlight this effort that is not socially visible. And my use of the terms “silent fighters” or “invisible heroes” refers to the sociological reading of the process of social invisibilisation. Focusing on doctors only (and not medical staff in general such as hospital workers, nurses, and technicians) denotes a class bias for the social group that resembles those in control of the media and other middle-class activists. Basically, they see heroes in their peers only. I also made a class analysis of the concept of solidarity and national unity, under which hidden forms of discrimination and disregard for certain social groups, that are unable to appear socially, prevail. Therefore, I can imagine that their invisibility is not the result of their absence or lack of their efforts, but rather it is the result of a structural exclusion process. They are invisible because others do not want to see them and not because they do not exist.

This global health crisis we are experiencing has highlighted the fragility of our economic, social and environmental systems, and has shown the risks and difficulties faced by workers, including daily and informal workers. In Egypt, for example, 25% of the workforce is employed in the agricultural and fishing sectors. Give us a general idea of the situation of small peasants / agricultural workers/fisher-folks, their working conditions and the safety measures that have been taken to protect them.

According to the last population census, conducted in 2017, the rural population reached 54.75 million people, representing 57.8% of the total population in Egypt. This percentage indicates an increase in the ratio of the rural to urban population compared to the 2006 census, which represented 57% of the total population. Economically active rural population working in agriculture (whether as primary work or part-time work) represent about 70% of the number of residents in the countryside. Agriculture is still a basic activity for the majority of the rural population and a basic source of livelihood.

If we look at the ownership structure in the last agricultural census (2010), we notice that small farmers who own holdings of less than five acres represent 90% of the ownership structure. And those agricultural families that own less than one acre represent a significan proportion of the agricultural community (37.7%). The percentage rises to 69% for those who own less than three acres while about 1% of owners have more than 20 acres, spread on 24.9% of the area Cultivated. Small farmers (owning less than five acres) represent therefore, the main constituent of agriculture in the valley and the delta and are the heart of Egyptian agriculture and the main producers of food.

During the neoliberal transformation from the 1970s onward, the Egyptian agricultural policy went from supporting agricultural production by providing improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at subsidized prices to a policy that reduced the support to small-scale agricultural producers, opening the door to investors in the agricultural sector, export crops, and liberalizing the prices of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and lands. The impact of economic liberalization on farmers was great, as it increased social inequality and impoverishment of large sections of the rural population. Neoliberal policies weakened the material capabilities of the peasantry and its ability to produce and reproduce. The government did not develop a strategy takes into account the specific conditions of the Egyptian countryside. On the contrary, the impoverishment of farmers and the exit of some of them from agricultural production continued with the state’s persistence in its strategies that focus on large-scale farms and export-led production.

Despite the adoption of an economic rescue plan of about 100 billion Egyptian pounds (5.8 billion Euros), small farmers and agricultural workers carry out their work in the absence of any form of protection and there is no form of support directed specifically to them. When it comes to the agricultural sector, the measures adopted are around the halt in paying the agricultural land tax, which is supporting landlords, not tenants or workers.

I imagine that this crisis will increase the difficulties faced by the agricultural sector, especially in light of this disregard and indifference that we observe in the steps that the state is taking concerning dealing with the current crisis.

How can small farmers and agricultural workers organize themselves during the Corona pandemic to demand their rights, including providing immediate protection in their work?

This question is difficult to answer because, as you know in Egypt, we live under an authoritarian rule that dismantled most of what the trade union obtained for peasants in the aftermath of the January 25 uprising that witnessed a broad movement to organize peasants. Five farmers unions were established, four of which were dismantled, and the one remaining is attached to the state apparatus. There is fear that the state and its apparatus will increase its control and surveillance over citizens and intensify repression and restriction of freedoms under the cover of tackling crisis. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the crisis can also create forms of local solidarity and organizing for the exchange of services and joint work, but it is still too early to see the outcome of that.

 North African countries represent some of the biggest importers of wheat in the world; I think Egypt and Algeria are in the top of the list. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, some countries announced that they had stopped exporting agricultural products. What is your assessment of the neoliberal policies that made us lose sovereignty over our food?

Of course, there are real concerns, especially that countries such as Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Russia have suspended their grain exports for a period that may be prolonged. Most of the countries in our region suffer from food dependency and relies on other exports to cover their specific needs of wheat and other food items.

The problem is that our countries do not learn from the lessons of the past. In the year 2007/2008, as a result of the global food crisis, Egyptians died fighting for bread in front of bakeries. The government stopped exporting rice, but it continued its policies that are favourable to capitalist agriculture and agricultural export.

I imagine that agriculture is the sector that will strongly reveal the failure of neoliberal policies in our region and that getting out of the agricultural crisis only means the exit from this dark tunnel called market policies. Countries wishing to leave this dark tunnel must reconsider public spending and value agriculture and food not merely as a commodity as well as plan for an agro-ecological food transformation that allows for a transition to food sovereignty.

The North African Food Sovereignty Network is one of the platforms of struggle in the region, which includes several agricultural organizations and progressive activists. In your opinion, how can we federate the efforts in the context of COVID19? How can we push for moving towards an alternative agricultural system based on justice and sustainability?

I think that the idea of ​​“food sovereignty” is not alien to our region and it is not alien to small farmers who adopt many ideas related to food sovereignty. Hence, I think it is not difficult to spread the ideas associated with this project.

What the network is doing is very important and crucial in disseminating ideas of “food sovereignty” on a regional level. On top of that, network partners work at the level of their countries as well. But I think that the list of membership should be expanded within the countries and also encourage the production of short audio-visual material about the concept and practices and activities related to “food sovereignty”, because written material is enough if we want to reach a wide range of categories.

The present moment represents a great opportunity for advancing the ideas of “food sovereignty” in two ways. First, the emergence of the disease is linked to the model of capitalist agriculture, the destruction of forests, and the growing proximity between humans and wildlife. On the other hand, we have all the risks of closing the borders, the inability of local production to meet needs and the failure of some countries to export their products. Here, it seems that putting forward a working alternative model is a priority so that we do not stop at mere criticism of the existing neoliberal system without building the first blocks of an alternative system that can be implemented while giving space for discussion and debate.

A final word on your current and upcoming research?

As you know, I am currently collaborating with the team of the Egyptian Initiative for the Support for Cooperatives, to complete a publication on food sovereignty in Egypt, and this study may assist in providing a good field and theoretical material to advance discussions and initiatives in this direction.

As for my research project in Sudan, I recently obtained a fieldwork grant from a French research centre (Centre for Socio-Legal and Economic Studies and Documentation in Khartoum “CEDE”) to complete a project on the relationship between farmers and the Arab uprisings. This research project aims to document and analyze the movement of farmers’ protest in the context of the Sudanese uprising of 2018. During this research, I will try to examine the protest movements of farmers historically and empirically in the contexts of the Sudanese uprising in the Al-Jazeera project, which was the centre of the famous peasant struggles in the late 1950s. I would like to explore questions such as: What is the historical and contemporary development of protest movements in the study area? How did the December 2018 uprising affect the peasant social movement? How did they position themselves around the politics of protest? And were they able to be part of it?

Translated by Mohamed Ramadan

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