By Maha El Dahan and Souhail Karam
By Maha El Dahan and Souhail Karam
June 6 (Reuters)
Morocco’s soft wheat imports may be its highest since 1981 after unfavorable weather left it with the worst cereal campaign among North African countries this year, while Algeria and Egypt expect lower purchases because of good local harvests.
Morocco’s agriculture ministry expects a 43 percent drop in this year’s cereal harvest that would include 2.6 million tonnes of soft wheat, one million tonnes of durum wheat and 1.2 million tonnes of barley. Last year’s harvest comprised 4.17 million tonnes of soft wheat and 1.85 million tonnes of durum wheat.
“Considering the smaller size of the wheat harvest this year, we expect its collection for the formal industry chain to be wrapped up faster than in previous years, hence the shorter June 1-Aug 31 period allowed by (state-run grains authority) ONICL for the collection of domestic wheat,” a Moroccan government official said.
Morocco is likely to import at least 4 million tonnes of soft wheat in the 12 months to end-May 2013, which would be the highest since 1981, according to data from the private Cereals Traders National Association (ANCL), which groups the country’s private industry operators.
The figure could rise to 4.8 million tonnes if durum wheat prices reach “prohibitive levels,” they said.
Having suspended import duties until the end of May, Rabat raised them to 17.5 percent in the period from June 1 to end-December as it braced for the collection of the domestic harvest and higher imports.
Morocco kept unchanged the price it pays local farmers for their soft wheat at a lucrative 2,900 dirhams ($330) per tonne but it cut by a third the period over which it subsidizes storage of locally-produced wheat.
“What will be collected (by millers and local traders) is the small surplus in (soft wheat) harvest, meaning the total harvest minus the wheat grown for subsistence by the bulk of Moroccan farmers and the 10-20 percent that goes to the informal milling industry,” the government official said.
ALGERIA HARVEST RECOVERS
In contrast to Morocco, heavy snow and rain in Algeria in February spared the country a repeat of last year’s poor harvest. Algeria’s all-time record grain harvest was in 2009, when it had 6.1 million tonnes. Last year’s harvest fell to 4.2 million tonnes, largely due to unfavorable weather.
“Output for this season will be better than last year due to rainfall both in terms of quantity and timing. Snow was also very beneficial,” Djamal Berchiche, a spokesman for the Algerian agriculture ministry said.
The harvest campaign was officially launched on Tuesday in the Western province of Relizane.
The head of the OAIC state grain agency said on Wednesday the domestic grain harvest was between 5.6 million and 5.8 million tonnes. Nouredine Kahel also told Algerian radio that there would be no more durum or barley imports this year and the country would import only soft wheat.
Last year’s poor harvest led Algeria to import more in a single year than it had since independence in 1962, according to United Nations figures. High imports were also driven by government eagerness to avoid food price rises that could trigger social unrest as the Arab Spring evolved in the region.
Algeria’s soft and durum wheat imports in the first four months of this year were down 15.6 percent on the same period in 2011 after the high purchases last year boosted stocks. It imported 2.01 million tonnes of wheat in January-April this year against 2.37 million tonnes in the first four months of 2011. [ID: nL5E8GK3OL]
Tunisians are also looking forward to one of their biggest cereal harvests in several years, around 2.5 million tonnes, due to heavy rainfall. Harvesting is expected to start in around one week’s time.
“The durum wheat harvest should be around 1.4 million tonnes and barley nearly 0.8 million tonnes,” an agriculture ministry official said.
Imports are expected to be around 0.5 million tonnes, he added.
In Egypt, the government has so far procured 2.6 million tonnes of wheat despite earlier reports that diesel shortages since the start of the year have hampered the harvest. Egyptian farmers use diesel to power their machinery.
The world’s top wheat importer had procured just 2.2 million tonnes during the same period last year. The General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), the state-run grain buyer, has said it expects to procure at least 3 million tonnes by the end of July, leading to a drop in imports.
“The supply figures compared to last year signals optimism and this means GASC can reduce this year its imports from abroad if the target is met,” said Nomani Nomani, vice chairman of GASC.
Egyptian wheat is planted in October and November and harvested in April and May. The local procurement season lasts until the end of July.
The country said in October it had raised the price it pays local farmers for their wheat to 380 Egyptian pounds ($63.60) per ardeb (140 kg) from 350 pounds during the last season to give them an incentive.
Egypt planted around 3.4 million feddans (acres) of wheat in the 2011/2012 season and better strains of wheat have helped raise yields, Nomani said.
Egyptian wheat yields rose from 5.35 tonnes per hectare (2.47 acres) in 2010 to 7.14 tonnes per hectare in 2011 due to the use of improved seeds and better weather, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last year.
Some traders and government officials have said however that the high local procurement figures pointed to fraudsters being encouraged by the price premium Egypt paid to its farmers to pass off cheap foreign grain as locally grown to profit at the country’s expense.