By Souhail Karam
By Souhail Karam
Rabat, March 2, 2012 (Reuters)
Morocco will have to import more cereals and raw sugar as drought and an unusually long cold spell have curbed crop cultivation, the head of the agriculture industry said on Friday.
The shortage comes at a sensitive time for the North African country’s $100-billion economy, which relies for 14 percent of its output on agriculture.
Ahmed Ouayach, who heads the Moroccan Confederation of Agriculture, said rain shortage this year meant Morocco would import more cereals and raw sugar than in the previous year.
“The situation is quite worrying. The harvest this year will be very average, if not bad,” Ouayach told Reuters.
Higher cereals imports will weigh on a balance of payment whose deficit soared in 2011 to its highest since the 1980s amid slackening growth in the euro zone, Rabat’s main trade partner.
Agriculture employs 40 percent of the 11-million workforce in Morocco, one of the world’s biggest cereal importers, which relies heavily on rain due mostly to the predominance of subsistence and rudimentary farming.
“Weather conditions – as far as the deficit in rainfalls is concerned – have not been this bad since 2007,” Ouayach said.
“All crops will suffer this year. The plants need rain and heat and we missed both elements this year.”
In the drought-hit 2007, cereals output was only 2 million tonnes, which compares with Morocco’s annual consumption of 8 million tonnes of wheat alone. It consumes about 1.2 million tonnes of sugar annually.
In the crop year that ended last June, Morocco produced 8.36 million tonnes of cereals, 12 percent above the previous year, including 6 million tonnes of wheat.
A dry cold spell has prevailed throughout much of the first two months of this year, hurting cereals plants and damaged 78 percent of 18,000 hectares covered by sugar cane, Ouayach said.
Sugar beet farmers, many of whom have been battling the country’s sole sugar refiner Cosumar for better terms, have reduced planted areas to 30,000 hectares, which is about half their usual area, Ouayach said.
“We will need to import more raw sugar to compensate the expected drop in local sugar output. We won’t be able to cover more than 30 percent of our sugar needs in 2012,” Ouayach added.
Agriculture Ministry officials could not immediately comment.
In mid-February, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Aziz Akhannouch told parliament rainfalls over the two weeks to the end of the month would determine the fate of the farming season.
But it has hardly rained since then.
In the latest available report on the progress of the farming season, the finance ministry this week said rainfall from September to mid-January was 27 percent below a normal year, a term used to describe a cereals harvest of 6 million tonnes, around two-third of which is wheat.
For cereals, 70 percent of the planted areas were in good shape by mid-January, the ministry said.
(Editing by James Jukwey)