Balaha lahma, literally ‘Do without meat’, is the name of a recent campaign that has been gaining wide public support in Egypt. As the name implies, the move calls for a boycott of meat in protest against its recently skyrocketing prices.
Meat has never been a cheap commodity in Egypt; it has in fact been known as the food of the well-off, the poorer sectors of the community have to do with vegetables and legumes or poultry and fish. When they do eat meat it’s not the fresh baladi meat of local cattle, but frozen imported meat which sells at affordable prices. Baladi meat remains a staple only on the tables of the rich and a delicacy for the middle class.
Last June/July corresponded to the holy Muslim month of Ramadan during which Muslims fast from dawn to sundown. A festive mood prevails during the non-fast hours, and food consumption is known to be especially high. This year, meat prices rose drastically during Ramadan and never went down again. Today, red meat sells at an average EGP110 per kilogramme, up from EGP80 per kilogramme before Ramadan. The third week of this month, September, will coincide with Eid al-Adha (The Feast of the Sacrifice), during which meat consumption usually skyrockets, meaning that the prices could see another drastic rise.
To contain the crisis, the Armed Forces have supplied red meat in their outlets at prices of EGP55 per kilogramme, while the Ministry of Supply has provided markets with meats imported from various countries including Sudan, Australia and Uruguay, at the affordable price of EGP40 per kilogramme.
The boycott, however, led to a 15 per cent rise in the prices of poultry and fish which consumers use as alternatives to meat.
Rashad Abdu, head of the Economic Forum for Strategic and Economic Studies, sees that the greed of traders and meat importers is behind the rise in prices. Those traders, Dr Abdu says, exploit the free market economy by teaming up to fix prices as they wish; consumers have to pay if they wish to buy.
“I see the European market as the perfect competitive model,” Dr Abdu notes. “It offers goods by a number of producers side by side with imports, which creates a balanced market and fair prices.”
In his opinion, there is a deficit in the production of red meat in Egypt, and imports do not make the balance. “The State must intervene,” he says. “The ministries of supply and agriculture must cooperate to supply more meats at their outlets without high profits. This should be to ease the pressure and create a balanced market at all times, not only at times like feast days when demand is especially high. The government must impose standards to control prices and trade. Export of red meat should be banned so that the prices would not again leap.”
As to the boycott campaign, Dr Abdu believes it will not bring fruit because it is waged by young people who are not the main consumers of meat. The major demand is by the wealthy, and these have no qualms about meat prices so are not expected to join in the boycott.
Demand far exceeds supply
“Meat prices will remain high as long as demand exceeds supply,” economic expert Mukhtar al-Sharif told Watani. “And this will remain the case as long as cattle farms in Egypt remain few and face problems; in other words as long as meat production cannot meet the market demand.
“This being the case,” Dr Sharif says, “there is not much the government can do to bring down meat prices. The low prices offered by the Ministry of Supply and the Armed Forces at their outlets are nothing but marginal efforts and can only do very little on that front. They just help a relatively small number of consumers from among those with low and middle incomes.”
Dr Sharif explains that Egyptian culture does not lend itself easily to imposing a boycott. People tend to think along the lines of ‘why should I deprive my children of meat as long as I can pay for it?’. So the richer people will go on buying meat and, given that they are the main consumers, the boycott cannot be complete. With this in mind, he says, the boycott is expected to reduce demand not bring it down to zero. So in order for it to work, the boycott must remain in force for a long time not just a few days after which prices would again rise once the demand rises.
“We need radical answers to the problem,” Dr Sharif says. “The market supply of meat should see a sustainable rise if we are to witness results. We have to produce or import more meat, or rear cattle in African countries that have good pastureland such as Sudan. The market supply of poultry and fish has to be increased too, so that their prices do not rise in proportion to that of meat.”
Eat less meat
Perhaps the last note on the matter is the remark made by Dr Abdu: “To put an end to overly expensive meat, we Egyptians need to change our pattern of consumption, a mainstay of our very lifestyle. We should learn to rely less on red meat for nutrition and focus more on healthier and less costly alternatives. Such a change cannot come overnight; it takes a lot of time to take root.”
2 September 2015