Triticum durum, commonly known as durum wheat (literally "hard wheat"), has a special place in the international grain trade. Because it is a different species used typically to grind semolina for pasta and couscous, it is often classified separately from bread wheat (Triticum aestivum).
The International Grains Council (IGC) estimated production of 38.4 million tonnes of global durum production, or about 7% of the world’s wheat crop, in the 2008-09 crop year. About 7 million tonnes of that total, or more than 17%, was traded internationally.
The southern European region has about a one-quarter share of global durum production. Not surprisingly, Italy, whose 26 kilograms annual per capita pasta consumption is twice that of the number two pasta-loving nation, Venezuela, is Europe’s leader at 5.2 million tonnes in the last crop year. France, Spain and Greece combine for another 4.3 million tonnes to help bring the European Union total to 9 million tonnes in 2009.
Other countries of the Mediterranean basin, with the exception of Egypt, grow and consume significant amounts of durum as well. Turkey is consistently the world’s fourth-largest producer at around 3 million tonnes per year, and Syria ranks high as well. The traditional diet of couscous drives demand in the Maghreb countries of North Africa.
Indeed, cultivation of durum wheat is thought to have originated in the Maghreb, if not Abyssinia, and durum was probably the only wheat grown in that region for much of its history. During the Muslim empire of the Middle Ages, durum was introduced from there to Spain and southern Italy.
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have experienced soaring population growth in recent decades. Depending on rainfall, these countries must now import anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of their wheat demand annually, including durum.
Nigeria durum imports have climbed from almost nothing a few years ago to 120,000 tonnes to diversify its reliance on the hard red winter variety.
North America, which had total durum production of nearly 10 million tonnes in 2008-09, mainly supplies Africa’s need. Canada, the U.S., and Mexico combine to annually ship between 5 and 6 million tonnes of durum beyond their borders, or more than two-thirds of all durum exports.
The IGC estimates that the North African countries, including Libya, imported 3.5 million tonnes of durum in a crop year with below average rainfall, but the current year’s forecast is for less import demand.
Algeria has been for several years the world’s number one importer of durum wheat with a peak of 2.1 million tonnes in the last period. The preferred origin is Canada. Since most Algerian wheat imports are done by a government grain office that is responsible for subsidized wheat distribution, its purchases from the Canadian Wheat Board may be the single most important bilateral trade relationship for durum wheat.
One peculiarity of the durum wheat trade is that many countries that export also import. U.S. semolina mills imported 600,000 tonnes from Canada in the last year. Turkey, Syria and Mexico both import and export significant amounts, depending on their harvests.
Because it is more thinly traded and not easily substitutable for high-quality pasta and couscous, durum prices tend to be more volatile than for standard wheat varieties. When wheat prices hit all-time highs in the spring of 2008, durum cash prices spiked the most to around $1,000 per tonne. But price drops can also be extreme. In recent months, durum has traded lower than bread wheat, though it is traditionally sold at a premium.
One factor in price volatility is that the durum wheat plant is notoriously hard to both get started and to replace once it is established. This has to do with a deep root structure that enables durum wheat to provide higher yields than other wheat in areas of low precipitation, regardless of temperature extremes.
North Dakota accounts for about 60% of U.S. durum production. Erica Olson, marketing manager at the North Dakota Wheat Commission, says that in a typical year 30% to 40% of her state’s durum wheat gets shipped to other countries. Montana makes up much of the balance of U.S. durum. California and Arizona are two states that don’t immediately come to mind as wheat producers. Nevertheless they are noted for their "desert durum" which has found a market in many countries as well.
In Russia, durum wheat is grown in the remote Altai region of western Siberia, and one of the country’s major pasta producers, Pava, is headquartered there.
Durum is valued for its hardness and golden yellow color. This makes quality evaluation different from standard wheat varieties, even though protein and gluten content and other parameters are still important.
In the U.S., durum is divided into three sub-classes based on a so-called HVAC (Hard and Vitreous of Amber Color) test. The top sub-class with at least 75% HVAC rating is called HAD (Hard and Amber Durum). In Canada, there are similar sub-classes, but the test is referred to as HVK (Hard and Vitreous Kernels).
Vitreousness is tested by means of a visual inspection where starchy kernels are separated from the golden yellow, translucent ones in the sample. Questionable chalky or weather-damaged kernels are sliced open with a scalpel to determine if they are hard.
Too high a content of non-vitreous, soft starchy kernels is undesirable in durum wheat, since they decrease semolina yields. But durum quality is important, not just for semolina yields but also for the rich amber color critical to consumer acceptance of both semolina and pasta.
Dr. Frank Manthey of North Dakota State University says that vitreousness "determines the kernels ability to fracture versus being crushed. Fracturing is needed to produce coarse granulation. Crushing produces flour which is much finer granulation and has less yellow appearance."
"Coarse granulation will look more yellow than fine granulation. So the same grain milled coarsely will look more yellow than grain milled finely. It is how the light reflects off the particles."
Housewives in some North African countries can be very particular when it comes to shopping for semolina to make couscous. Peter Lloyd, regional technical director of U.S. Wheat Associates in Casablanca, notes that because of a high domestic wheat base price for setting durum import duties, Moroccan importers "bought the highest quality they could find to pay less duty. Consumers got to like it and place a very, very big emphasis on durum (semolina) color." As a result, he notes, "Morocco is an exclusively Grade 1 HAD importer (and Grade 1 CWAD) only."
Lloyd estimates that in Morocco "75% of durum products are sold as semolina for home baking and semi-industrial bakeries," with 20% going for industrially produced couscous and just 5% for pasta.
State grain companies in Algeria and Tunisia are less picky than the private-sector buyers in Morocco. "Algeria buys No. 2 or better HAD/CWAD as well as Mexican and occasionally Syrian," according to Lloyd. He notes that "Tunisia buys whatever is cheapest," while noting that there are private sector pasta producers who buy the top grade.
"Generally, people will adhere to the HAD spec of 75% minimum HVAC, but for the last couple of years they have insisted on a minimum 80% HVAC," Lloyd concludes,
However, nature plays a role, as Norm Woodbeck, chief grain inspector of the Canadian Grains Commission, observes. "HVK values and grade shipping patterns vary according to the weather conditions of any year." He notes that in 2008-09, the number one grade of amber durum accounted for 42% of total shipments, but that increased to 47% in the current year.
SEMOLINA MILLING AND PASTA PRODUCTION
Most of the world’s high quality durum wheat is used by specialized semolina mills, though it is hard to estimate the amount of lesser quality durum that is ground into flour and used in certain types of bread, or simply used as animal feed.
Italy has the largest concentration of semolina mills of any country, supplying an industry that produces 3.1 million tonnes of pasta annually. It is both an importer and exporter of durum wheat as well as accounting for the lion’s share of global semolina exports, which are limited to about 200,000 tonnes per year.
Thanks to yearly capita pasta consumption of 9 kilograms, the U.S. holds the number two spot in pasta production and consumption.
Barilla, whose headquarters are in the northern Italian city of Parma, is the single largest semolina miller and pasta producer in both countries, as well as globally. The company boasts semolina mills in Greece and Turkey in addition to four in Italy and one of the largest U.S. mills in Ames, Iowa.
With pasta semolina milling and pasta production as its core activity, Barilla has become a global food giant, claiming over 50 processing plants in 13 countries, 16,000 employees, over 2.7 million tonnes of food production, and €4.5 million in annual revenues (2008).
In the U.S., there are 15 to 20 semolina mills. About half of them are in the northern-tier states of Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. Some of these are swing mills, capable of producing flour, too. Several are joined to pasta production at the same site. North Dakota, with a half-dozen mills, has the biggest concentration.
David McKee is a grain industry consultant providing market research and other services to companies seeking to initiate business in new markets. He can be reached by e-mail at