Kaluba Jickson on Barnes, 'Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt'

Jessica Barnes. Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 320 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1852-0; $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1586-4.

Reviewed by Chama Kaluba Jickson (University of the Free State)
Published on H-Environment (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58428

Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt is a remarkably well-written book focusing on bread and wheat in Egypt and the central role they play in Egyptian daily life. It draws a link between bread and the processes of cultivating, trading, and milling of wheat from which the bread is made and provides clear parallels between the case of wheat and bread in Egypt and those of other staple foods around the world.

The book departs from studies that use food security as a lens to explain narratives of food, society, and politics. Jessica Barnes introduces a new concept of staple security, thereby permitting analysis of a broad range of staples. The book offers a novel conceptual framework—staple security—for writing on food and security and, by so doing, foregrounds the sense of a threat attached to the possibility of a palatable staple not being available, a threat to an individual’s sense of self and the nation’s political stability. The book demonstrates that staple security is as much about the desire for a decent staple as it is about the fear for no staple. Staple Security aids our understanding of food histories. It opens an essential window to understanding the nexus between food, on the one hand, and politics and society, on the other, even as it departs from work on “food security to approach the securing of a staple food as a form of everyday actions, underpinned by deeply held anxieties and desires” (pp. 231-32). The book further shifts the focus beyond the policy realm to encompass the ways security permeates lived experiences.

In departing from scholarship on food security to mark out a distinct domain of staple security, the book disaggregates the category of food. By so doing, it argues for the centrality of staple foods in people’s diets, their symbolic resonance, and, as a result, the deeper sense of threat that surrounds them. Barnes argues that the value of disaggregating the resource is not to identify a particular form of the resource that is more interwoven with security than others (as in the case of staples compared to other foods) but rather to recognize the varied actors who have an interest in securing access to this shared resource for contrasting purposes.

Staple Security addresses the existential threat tied to the possibility of a good staple not being available and illuminates the multiple actions that are employed at various levels in ensuring the presence of a decent staple. It provides a conceptual foundation for recognizing the varied experiences of anxiety and yearning, on the one hand, and, on the other, the comfort that comes with having a good staple to eat—and for understanding their significance. Barnes shows that it is the anxiety surrounding staple absence and the desire for staple quality that underpin the everyday labors of those who ensure that a family has a palatable staple to eat. Moreover, the “efforts to secure resources are intimately tied to historically rooted anxieties and desires, political relations, and everyday labor” (p. 232). The book contributes to wider scholarship by raising questions about what it might mean to approach other forms of resource security, such as energy security or water security, less as a goal that can be achieved and more as a mode of action.

The book’s overarching argument is that security is more of a practice of responding to an existential threat than an achieved status. The work provides a framework for understanding the many ways different actors ensure the securing of core needs, sometimes at the expense of others. Barnes reveals multiple practices that are employed to secure a continuous supply of a palatable staple on a national, household, or individual level, to assuage anxieties about staple absence and meet desires for staple quality. The book connects the labor of different key actors who work to ensure staple security at national, household, and individual levels. She argues that staple security is a framework for considering the varied and sometimes contradictory practices of securing staples, whether for a family or a nation. The book brings together the global dynamics of the international grain trade and scientists working to develop new high-yielding seeds for increased productivity; the national politics of an intensive subsidy program and government efforts to procure and store wheat; and individuals going about their day-to-day business, standing in line at bureaucratic offices, buying loaves at bakeries, and kneading vats of dough. Thus, it provides a lens through which to understand the actions of those who supply and those who consume staples.

Staple Security provides a more dynamic approach to resource security even as it addresses the social, material, and political relations that emerge through the presence and taste of staple food. Placing staple food at the center of socioeconomic and political dynamics, the book opens a fascinating window to understanding the nexus between staples and security. It brings to the fore the implication of staples on society, highlighting the political repercussions of the abundance or lack of staples in a nation. Citing the popular protests of January 25, 2011, Barnes shows that shortage of bread and compromise in quality has the potential to provoke protests. Thus, the book demonstrates the power of food, a staple food in particular, in society. The absence of a good staple, bread in the case of Egypt, carries the risk of political instability. While for a government not having bread is a threat to the state’s very being, on the individual level, the lack of bread is a threat to one’s very being.

Chapter 1 traces the history of the development of wheat varieties and the production of high-yielding, disease-resistant crop in Egypt. Focusing on the changes in wheat production over the twentieth century to the present, it explores the threat of disease epidemics and the nation running out of food. The chapter further highlights the history of Egypt’s government-subsidized bread and shows the efforts taken by successive governments to tweak the price, size, composition, and style of subsidized bread in order to ensure an unfailing supply of quality and acceptable bread. The chapter underscores the rationale driving the process of change, arguing that the becoming of wheat and bread is one realm in which practices of staple security are manifest. Barnes demonstrates that the new kind of wheat that has come to dominate Egypt’s agricultural landscape, the high-yielding wheat, is a champion for meeting the nation's bread needs and wiping out the threat of grain scarcity. Undoubtedly, since the 1960s, the focus on yields by ensuring the availability of high-yielding new varieties has been to wipe out the threat of grain scarcity.

At the core of the chapter are the distinct actions and forms of expertise that are employed to ensure quality subsidized bread and sufficient supply. The actions, which include fighting rust by breeding wheat and developing high-yielding varieties to produce more, are all driven toward ensuring that nothing threatens the supply of bread. The chapter shows that the breeding of seeds to be productive and disease resistant and the altering of specifications of the size and composition of baladi bread are practices of staple security. It points to various actors whose actions to ensure that Egyptians have sufficient and good quality bread are “underpinned by a shared sense of threat—the threat that Egyptians will not have decent bread to eat” (p. 78). The “lack of bread,” the chapter shows, “poses an immediate threat. The fear of the bread riot” (p. 63). Therefore, by deploying specific extraction rates of flour, mixing ratios, weights, and prices as devices of staple security, the state affords to manipulate subsidized bread, with the central goal of ensuring that the supply does not run out and that the general public is satisfied with its quality, ultimately, to avert instability in the nation.

Chapter 2, “Gold of the Land,” discusses wheat from the point of planting to harvest. The chapter is concerned with the domestic production of wheat and the processes involved in moving the grain from the domain of household bread production into the domain of national bread production. It traces the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting wheat in Egypt. The chapter engages with the relationship that exists between those who farm wheat and those who claim a national stake in the homegrown staple, the farmer and the state. Focusing on the procuring of domestic wheat, the chapter demonstrates that procurement is a practice that is employed to transfer domestic wheat from something a farming household eats as homemade bread to something that the nation eats as subsidized bread. Thus, “procuring of domestic wheat” is employed as a mechanism of moving “wheat out of the domain of household bread production and into the domain of national subsidized bread production” (p. 83). The procurement price is a device that the government employs to incentivize farmers to grow wheat and sell their harvest. The chapter also underscores the competing perspectives of staple security between the state and the rural communities that cultivate staples. It demonstrates the different meanings of staple security to rural households that cultivate wheat. “Whereas to government officials staple security means monitoring wheat-cultivated areas around the country and directing as much of the harvest as possible into the subsidized bread program,” to the farmer cultivating the crop, “it means sustaining a household” (p. 88). Thus, to a farmer in the rural setting, domestic cultivation of wheat is intended to provide for a family rather than meeting a national need. Small-scale farmers grow wheat primarily as a crop for household consumption rather than for profit.

Chapter 3 is concerned with the procuring of foreign wheat. It underscores the various factors that shape the government’s ability to secure wheat from global markets and the popular as well as political anxieties that surround the procurement process of the grain. Practices of procuring, assessing, and storing are at the core of the chapter. Highlighted in this chapter are aspects of quality concerns over imported wheat as well as trust and security. The chapter addresses the important role that storage plays in the passage of wheat in Egypt. It locates storage as a threat and a locus of corruption and focuses on three vital storage structures—“the farmer’s house, shona, and silos”—in the “passage of wheat in Egypt” (p. 136). Storage is critical since “stored grain in huge silos produces a sense of reassurance in the knowledge that immediate needs are covered, even if the threat of scarcity is still present” (p. 139). For instance, although they do not feature on the government’s map of storage infrastructure, farmers’ homes are key, as the grain stored by farming households plays an important role in securing the staple food, thereby insulating families from fluctuations in the market price of flour. “Stored grain,” Barnes notes, “acts as a form of saving bolstering a household’s security in multiple ways” (p. 137). Storage also buffers the country against fluctuations in international prices and the problems in major wheat-producing countries, such as poor harvest or export bans, that would otherwise pose a threat to the country’s staple security. The chapter further highlights the problems of the government's capacity to procure wheat as well as the quality of wheat procured.

The fourth chapter, which Barnes coauthored with her research assistant, Mariam Taher, deals with government-subsidized baladi bread, which is commonly eaten in Egypt. It explores the processes involved in transforming wheat into baladi bread and bringing it home. The chapter begins with practices of securing sufficient baladi bread. Thereafter, it considers practices employed in securing quality baladi bread. Finally, it examines people’s everyday practices of handling bread at the bakery and on the street, which ultimately shapes the taste and texture of the loaves. The overarching argument is that baladi bread is a central component of the life of Egyptians; it is something that is not only “foundational” or a “linchpin of many people’s daily sustenance” but also an item that meets a central need in Egypt, especially “for the poorest segment of the population” since “it is the only bread they can afford” (pp. 154-55). Thus, the lack of bread or a compromise in its quality poses a threat to those who depend on it and to the stability of the nation. Given bread’s unmatched significance, the possibility of there not being enough baladi bread or of the baladi bread not being good enough poses an existential threat.

The chapter touches on the everyday practices employed to counter this threat by securing the supply and quality of baladi bread. For instance, accessing a smart card and maintaining it are everyday practices of staple security at the individual level. A working smart card and operational card readers are key in enabling individuals to access bread at a subsidized price. A smart card is a security device by which one can access cheap baladi bread and a means by which that access can be terminated. The manner in which baladi bread is handled at the bakery and on the street is key in shaping the taste and texture of the loaves. The chapter shows that securing a steady supply of a quality staple is not only about national-level policy decisions concerning a vast subsidy program but also about the effort of people in accessing a functional smart card that can permit them access to baladi bread.

Chapter 4 concludes that there are contrasting perspectives between government officials responsible for the baladi bread program and individual consumers. While the former employ policy to influence the quantity and quality of bread private bakeries deliver to the customer, the latter have to navigate various bureaucratic steps to obtain a functioning smart card that permits access to subsidized baladi bread and also handle their loaves in certain ways to maintain quality. Nonetheless, the practices employed at the state and individual levels interact to ensure a continuous supply of a quality staple and ultimately staple security.

Chapter 5 focuses on homemade bread that is eaten in many rural households as well as in some urban households. It starts by exploring homemade bread in the rural context and underscores the value that rural residents attach to homemade bread. The chapter then discusses the practices employed by rural residents in securing a constant supply of homemade bread in the home, such as sharing labor, accessing the inputs, and handling the inputs. Staple security to some means securing a continuous supply of homemade bread. It further highlights the place of homemade bread in the city where its consumption is surpassed by the consumption of Baladi bread. Nonetheless, homemade bread is accorded importance in the city based on its taste and link to cultural heritage. The chapter touches on the perception of bread as a sign of care and the “value of shared labor in the production of homemade bread” (p. 197). Pointing to the sharing of labor, Barnes notes that baking is a social activity that permits women a “chance to sit and talk together.” She argues that since “crafting a food is also a process of crafting social relations and one’s sense of self,” the “baking of bread” “is a way of building a community” (pp. 197-98). Thus, the “sharing of skilled labor is a device of staple security—a mechanism for ensuring that family members can eat their desired staple” (p. 201).

Dealing with the presence of homemade bread in the city and among urban residents, the chapter emphasizes the meaning of the taste of the bread to them. It highlights the tactics employed by urban residents to secure the supply of homemade bread in the city. Finally, Barnes explains that homemade bread is a matter of national concern, addressing the efforts of “Cairo elites” in sustaining Egypt’s homemade bread as an object of cultural value. The chapter demonstrates how efforts of logging the pieces of bread in museum exhibits, encyclopedias, and online databases are linked to the cultural value placed on homemade bread.

The different practices, Barnes concludes in chapter 5, are all driven by a desire for pleasure, the longing to eat bread that tastes good, which brings satisfaction when eaten. However, “taste is not only about flavor sensation that comes from a particular kind of bread but the social relationships that surround the making of that bread” (p. 193).

The book’s forte lies in the wider use of a range of sources, including ethnography, interviews with various actors in Egypt, participant observation, newspapers and archival materials from the Rockefeller Archives Center in New York, US National Archives in Maryland, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Archives in Rome, and online sources. The book presents several real-life stories based on interviews conducted with different actors in Egypt. Another strength is how the book draws connections with issues of staple security in countries in Africa but also from other continents. Barnes also provides extensive illustrations that are well linked to the content of each chapter. The concept of staple security is of value to anyone interested in the subject of food and politics as well as food histories.

Although the strength of Staple Security lies in the archival sources consulted, its weakness, too, can be found in the sphere of sources. The author does not consult or mention the National Archives of Egypt, which are key not only for writing the history of bread and wheat in Egypt but also for understanding the agricultural transformations that have taken place in the region over the centuries. Beyond carrying out interviews with various respondents, the book could have immensely benefited from archival materials contained in the National Archives of Egypt.

Citation: Chama Kaluba Jickson. Review of Barnes, Jessica, Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58428

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.