Sekem started with the personal vision of Dr Ibraham Abouleish. Born in Egypt, he trained in Austria and returned to Egypt in 1975, where he was overwhelmed by his country’s lack of education, it’s overpopulation, and it’s pollution, particularly from the use of chemical pesticides. He established Sekem, which means ‘vitality from the sun’, in 1977: “I had a vision of a three-fold project that would allow me to contribute to community-building, humanity, and healing the earth.”
He founded Sekem on a 70-hectare patch of scrub and desert near Belbeis, 60km north-east of Cairo, on the eastern edge of the southern Nile delta. Working with a group of Europeans and local Egyptian farmers, he planted many trees and used natural biodynamic organic fertilisers to help bring life back to the desert. As the soil improved, they planted herbs, and started producing and selling herbal medicines. By 1983, they were harvesting their first crops of organic fruits, vegetables and spices. In the years since, Sekem has grown into a community of businesses, schools, and non-profit societies that employs some 2 000 people.
At present the SEKEM Holding Company employs about 2 000 people within it’s six separate company divisions. The textiles division, Nature Tex, was founded in 1994 and employs approximately 300 people. Every morning at a specific time, employees of each company meet in a circle, where each person briefly reports about his activities of the previous day, as well as his/her work intentions for the present day. This allows each person to feel a sense of dignity as a member of the SEKEM community.
Each company has an administrator who is responsible for the interests of the workers, and the quality of their work environment. He organises their training, career development, as well as their health care program.
ORGANIC COTTON GROWING IN EGYPT
Cotton has been grown in Egypt since about 300 BC. Production for export started around 1829. Egypt is worldwide the most important producer of long to extra long staple cotton. The cotton sector is the largest agro industry in the country and textile exports are the most important export commodities.
Cotton cultivation is one of the most pesticide intensive crops worldwide. Whereas only o.8% of cultivated areas worldwide are used to grow cotton, cotton uses 18% of the chemical plant protection active ingredients. The important milestone of building the Aswan High Dam in the 1960’s stopped the fertile Nile mud flooding. This was simultaneously the starting point of the ever more intensive use of agrochemicals in Egyptian agriculture.
Due to the positive experience in the biodynamic cultivation of herbs, cereals and vegetables the SEKEM initiative was asked in 1990 to apply the biodynamic methods also to cotton. In close cooperation with scientists, farmers, consultants and consumers the SEKEM initiative developed the biodynamic system of organic cotton cultivation in Egypt.
Despite initial scepticism the system was successful. More and more the methods to control the insects without the use of pesticides were taken over by official authorities. This lead to a significant reduction in pesticide use in Egypt and an almost 30% increase in the average yield of raw cotton.
In 1992, Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, founder of the SEKEM initiative, and his son Helmy, were able to secure an agreement to completely abolish pesticide spraying from aeroplanes. This agreement has been honoured except for isolated incidents. Due to this ban, implementation of the pheromone* system as integrated plant protection on previously conventionally managed farms has been successful. In fact, it has grown to 300 000 ha in Egypt. The reduced pesticide use in Egypt has had favourable effects on the predator species appearance. 64 types of insects and 43 kinds of animals, including bats, rodents and birds are now reintroduced and controlling pests.
*Pheromones are signal and attracting substances, produced by the female insects during pairing time to attract the male counterpart. Such pheromones are specie specific and relatively easy to synthesize so that they can be used to put into traps to catch the male insects. The female will then not be able to lay fertile eggs.
BIODYNAMICS IN EGYPT – Egyptian Biodynamic Association
Biodynamic is the ecological system and science of life-forces, recognising and incorporating basic principles perceived at work in nature, and an approach to agriculture which takes these principles into account to bring the farm system in balance with its surrounding environment.
Biodynamic farmers grow crops with a strong connection to a healthy living soil. In practice, the main difference between biodynamic agriculture and organic is the use of cosmic rhythms and so-called biodynamic preparations. Cosmic rhythms mean that the light of the sun, moon, and planets reaches the plants in regular patterns. Each is believed to contribute to the life, growth and form of the plant. By recognising the effect of each rhythm, such as planting by phases of the moon, farming operations could be timed to the advantage of the crops being raised.
One of the fundamental efforts is to build up stable humus in the soil through composting. Biodynamics is proven to be productive and yields nutritious high quality foods. A distinguished feature of biodynamic farming is the use of mineral, plant or animal manure extracts, usually fermented and applied in small proportions to compost, manures, the soil, or directly onto plants, after dilution and stirring procedures called dynamisations.
The world’s first crop of biodynamic cotton was harvested in Egypt in 1991, a truly remarkable landmark achievement. Today, the yearly use of agro-chemicals in Egypt has been reduced by over 30 000 tonnes since 500 000 hectares of cotton are now cultivated without pesticides, as a direct result of the Egyptian Biodynamic Associations activities.
Reference – Organic Cotton in Egypt by G. Merckens and K. Merckens