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Tunisia: Tunisia Grain gain




Tunisia: Grain gain


Tunisia’s agriculture industry is growing again with this year’s yields well up, bouncing back from 2010 when low seasonal rains meant poor harvests for many crops. This comes as a welcome relief for the government, who at one point had been forced to consider importing more than half of its grain consumption. In spite of the increased output however, more work has to be done to strengthen the farming sector’s fundamentals.

According to data issued by the National Statistics Institute in mid-October, GDP rose by 1.5% in the third quarter, with much of the expansion driven by the agriculture and fisheries sector, which increased by 9.5% for the three months ending 30 September. This growth was more than double the 4.5% rise recorded by Tunisia’s manufacturing industries, and well above the 8% increase for the textile and clothing sector.

The stronger performance by Tunisian agriculture will have a far reaching impact on the national economy, with the sector accounting for a full 12% of GDP on average, as well as being one of the country’s largest employers.

Much of the industry’s recent improvement has come from the wheat segment, with farmers bringing in better than predicted harvests this year. According to projections from the US Department of Agriculture issued in the first half of 2011, Tunisia was expected to import up to 1.8m tonnes of wheat this year, marginally up from the 1.73m tonnes of 2010. Though the agency, which regularly monitors grain production around the globe, forecast that Tunisia will harvest up to 1.3m tonnes of wheat in 2011 – well up on the 821,000 tonnes brought in during the preceding drought-stricken year – increased demand and the need to ensure food security would also prompt a rise in imports.

However, in late June the agriculture minister, Mokhtar Jalouli, said that due to good harvests, Tunisia may only have to import around 600,000 tonnes of all grains, including barley as well as wheat. Earlier, Jalouli announced that the 2011 wheat harvest would be close to 2m tonnes, thanks to better rains and increased plantings. This year, local farmers planted some 1.4m ha for grain, a 13% increase in the area compared to the previous year.

The improved performance marks a strong turn around from 2010. Late last year, the Agriculture Ministry estimated that it would have to import up to 2m tonnes of grain to make up for the shortfall in 2010 production. The savings on imports would run to more than $286m, Jalouli said.

These savings will be all the more welcome by the government as it struggles to meet the growing demands on the state treasury made by a country and an economy in transition.

By reducing the drain on the budget imposed by grain imports, the farming sector will be making a dual contribution to the economy, along with its critical role in feeding the population.

Despite the stronger performance by Tunisia’s agriculture sector and its grain producers in particular, the industry still faces a number of hurdles. Foremost among these is its susceptibility to climatic fluctuations and to disease. With only limited irrigation capacity, and with much of the country prone to regular bouts of drought, stability of production can be a major issue.

Over the past decade, wheat harvests have ranged from a low of 420,000 tonnes in 2002 to 1.72m tonnes in 2004, with this year’s yield potentially being the highest since the 2m tonnes seen in 1996. Infestations from pests and disease have also eaten into harvests in some years, though the use of improved strains of seed have helped reduce these losses.

One measure floated by the Agriculture Ministry in June 2011 to strengthen the farming industry is to allow greater foreign investment through leasing land to overseas investors, a move that could see more capital flow into the farming sector, which would in turn result in improved technology being used and ultimately higher yields. However, the proposal does not come without controversy, with critics labelling it such policies as “land grab”.

The continuing susceptibility of the sector means that while the country’s farmers have enjoyed a better year in 2011, the state’s wheat importing agency has continued to build up stockpiles of soft wheat in particular ahead of the coming winter. Since late September, officials representing the Office of Cereals have secured deals for more than 200,000 tonnes of soft milling wheat and lesser amounts of feed barley.

The additional grain in the silos will serve as an insurance against the risk of a below average harvest next season. With officials mindful of the sharp fluctuations of wheat supplies and prices on the international market, and the impact that shortages of staples had earlier this year during the waves of civil unrest, taking such insurance measures is a valuable policy as Tunisia continues its transitional journey.

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