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Helmy Abouleish is the CEO of SEKEM Holding, the Initiative for Sustainable Development in the Egyptian desert. He recently contributed to the publication “The Future of Agriculture in Egypt: Comparative Full Cost Accounting Study of Organic and Conventional Crop Production Systems in Egypt”. As we observe the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June 2020, we interviewed him about using organic farming practices to help deal with this.

There is general consensus that we need to change the way we produce and consume food. Unsustainable agriculture is the largest driver of biodiversity loss, it is contributing to global warming, contaminating soil, threatening rural livelihoods as well as food & nutrition security. Tell us why you practice organic agriculture?

My father founded SEKEM in 1977 to bring the community together to work in harmony with the environment. He believed that organic farming practices were the best way to work with the soil and nurture it. I grew up respecting nature and never doubted that organic was the only way of life I wanted to live. The benefits of organic were and still are visible. I not only saw it from my father, but I personally experienced how organic does not abuse or deplete resources, but harmoniously works with them. That is why I chose organic, and why I will continue to choose organic.

SEKEM works holistically in the four pillars of sustainable development: Ecology, Economy of Love, Social Life and Cultural Life © SEKEM

The United Nations has declared the years 2018 – 2028 the Decade for Water to draw attention to the critical role access to clean water plays in sustaining livelihoods. The study highlights the extent to which Egypt suffers from severe water scarcity and the United Nations is already warning that Egypt could run out of water by 2025. How can organic agriculture prevent this from happening?

Before answering this question, we should take the following information into perspective: Egypt gets 55 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile, which can only support 55 million people. We estimate that, in Egypt, each person consumes 1000 cubic meters of water annually to feed themselves. Now, with a population of more than 100 million, there is not enough water available, so the country imports 45% of water in terms of food. For example, Egypt is by far the largest importer of wheat globally. In the end, we do not have sufficient water to grow enough crops to feed ourselves.

I believe organic agriculture is an obvious solution. Organic agricultural practices use water more efficiently than other agricultural systems. Instead of using chemical pesticides, organic agriculture relies on compost, which is black gold for farmers. Compost enriches the soil and increases its water retention capacity, thus adding vitality to soils. These living soils are important in mitigating desertification because they sequester carbon, reduce salinity, and organically managed soils also retain more water than soils subject to industrial farming practices.

Aside from that, there is no need to use chemical fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil or pesticides to deal with pests and diseases because organic agricultural practices already naturally handle these issues. In fact, organic practices reduce not only runoff that is caused by soil erosion, but also chemical runoff which is a leading cause of water pollution.  That is why I believe that organic agriculture, and its proven benefits, is the best way to tackle soil degradation while protecting our water resources.

Organic agricultural practices use water more efficiently than other agricultural systems © SEKEM

Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. What should we know about the causes of desertification and the solutions that organic agriculture brings?

Industrial agricultural techniques weaken and deplete the soil by using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as well as killing the microorganisms in them. Without living soils, salinity is increased, water retention abilities are reduced, and erosion becomes very easy as the top soil is blown by wind or washed away by water. When this continuously happens over a period of time, the land degrades and desertification occurs.

The good news is that we can actually reduce the impact and spread of desertification by investing in soil quality and vitality, using organic practices because they are sustainable. Air and water erosion are lower in organic farming than other farming systems.

Desertification is not just affecting Egypt; it is affecting many countries all over the world. Keep in mind that 75% of land on earth is degraded and this is likely to increase, according to the New World Atlas of Desertification. So, this is not just an Egyptian problem, it is a global problem.

It is possible to reclaim degraded land and counter the effects of desertification © SEKEM

Numerous studies have highlighted the need for change if we are to nourish future generations. What role can organic agriculture play in shaping sustainable food systems?

Farming in line with the Principles of Organic Agriculture means dealing with energy, water, and soils in a more efficient and sustainable way. Other systems focus on direct costs, often neglecting the damage costs of degrading and polluting our natural resources for current and future generations. The damage costs from organic farming are much lower than conventional farming. For example, pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming go into water systems which need to be cleaned. Pollution of water sources is a cost every citizen has to pay for and the cost of cleaning this water is not reflected in the price of the final product from this farm. In other words, the actual costs of unsustainable farming practices are not reflected when the products are sold in the marketplace. Unfortunately, this will only worsen if nothing is done. If we want to invest in the future, we have to invest in sustainable agricultural practices. This is why I call for a 100% organic future and will definitely continue to work to make it a reality.

Sustainable agricultural practices create harmonious living for all species in the animal and plant kingdom © SEKEM

Finally, how can policy-makers help shape the future of food and farming, the 100% organic future you call for, and how can we raise awareness of the need for change?

Policy makers could help by promoting organic agriculture and its multiple benefits which have proven better for people and the planet. They could also subsidize organic farmers for the full extent of the work they do using healthy sustainable practices and not degrading the land. Also, a tax on products produced by industrial agriculture would help reveal the true price of harmful agricultural practices.

Furthermore, I believe that if consumers are given the full picture, they can and will make more informed and responsible choices. This is the responsibility of policy makers, to support research and training that creates awareness amongst consumers, so they have a better understanding of the impact of different agricultural practices. The study shows how organic is not only better for the environment, but is less costly and economically feasible.


With the vision of promoting sustainable development in economy, ecology, society and culture, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish founded the SEKEM Initiative in the Egyptian desert in 1977. The SEKEM group of companies produces, processes and markets organic and biodynamic food, textiles and herbal medicines in Egypt and on international markets. SEKEM is considered the Egyptian “organic pioneer” and was awarded the “Alternative Nobel Prize” in 2003. The SEKEM companies use parts of their profits to finance the activities of the SEKEM Development Foundation (SDF), which runs among others schools and a medical center. In 2012, the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development opened under the umbrella of SEKEM Initiative.

Find out more about what SEKEM does