High prices drive decline in flour exports

by Morton Sosland
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Resistance to sharply higher prices was blamed by the International Grains Council (IGC) for a reduction in its recent estimate of world trade in wheat flour in the 2010-11 season. In its latest analysis of trade prospects in the current season, the IGC placed the likely total at 11,700,000 tonnes in wheat equivalent, down 530,000 tonnes from its prior forecast made late last November.

At the indicated total, 2010-11 world trade in wheat flour would have dipped to the lowest level in four years, or since 2006-07, when the global volume totaled 10,696,000. The estimated outgo for the current season would be down 9% from the world flour trade record of 12,879,000 tonnes achieved in the 2009-10 crop year.

The latest 2010-11 estimate, equal to 187 million cwts of flour, was still sharply above the recent export low of 5,861,000 tonnes of wheat equivalent in 1985-86.

Exports of durum semolina are not included in the IGC data on world flour shipments. Those shipments recently have been at 200,000 tonnes per year. Adding that to the IGC aggregate brings global trade in all wheat flour in 2010-11 to 11,900,000 tonnes, compared with 13,070,000 in 2009-10. The latter marked the first time in history that global flour exports exceeded 13 million tonnes of wheat equivalent.

Price resistance was primarily felt in three countries that reduced their takings. The three are Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, which experienced reductions of 100,000 tonnes, 200,000 tonnes and 150,000, respectively, from prior estimates. Afghanistan, expected to import 1.3 million tonnes of wheat flour in wheat equivalent this season, was once again the leading import flour market. It has held that position for several years, reflecting the nation’s stepped-up food needs in response to the high level of military conflict under way in that country.

The second largest flour importing nation in 2010-11, according to IGC estimates, will be Uzbekistan, with takings forecast at 1.2 million tonnes, down from 1.5 million in the prior season, but in line with earlier years.

The only other country expected to import at least 1 million tonnes was Iraq, another nation where demand for flour was affected by military actions. Its expected imports were down 200,000 from the prior prospect and showed the same decrease from 2009-10 takings. The latter were its largest imports in the recent period.

Africa’s share of flour imports continued on a pronounced downward course. The continent’s total expected imports in 2010-11 were reduced by the IGC to 1,790,000 tonnes, off 170,000 tonnes from the estimate of several months ago. African imports compared with 1,950,000 tonnes in 2009-10 and the recent peak of 2,554,000 in 2005-06. The continent’s high of recent decades was 3,944,000 tonnes in 1996-97, which accounted for 35% of global flour trade. In the current season, Africa’s share of global flour imports was slashed to 15%.

IGC estimates of flour exports by countries in 2010-11 showed a decrease from November in almost all of the principal shipping nations. Kazakhstan maintained its lead as the largest flour shipper, its outgo newly estimated at 3 million tonnes, down 300,000 from the prior forecast and 15% below its record outgo of 3,515,000 tonnes in 2009-10. It has been the leader in flour exporting since 2006-07.

Holding second place for that same period was Turkey, with its shipments in 2010-11 estimated at 2.2 million tonnes, compared with 2.5 million in the previous crop season and 2,151,000 in 2008-09.

The E.U. regained third place as a flour exporter in 2010-11, forecast to ship 1.3 million tonnes in wheat equivalent, against 1,250,000 in the prior season and the recent high of 1,482,000 in 2008-09. As recently as 1996-97, the E.U. shipped 6,249,000 tonnes of flour in wheat equivalent, ranking it at that time as the dominant flour shipper.

Argentina was closely behind the E.U., expected to ship 1.2 million tonnes of flour in wheat equivalent in 2010-11, compared with 1,280,000 in 2009-10. Its recent peak was 1,535,000 in 2007-08.

The IGC estimated U.S. wheat flour exports in 2010-11 at 400,000 tonnes in wheat equivalent, off 100,000 from the November forecast. That outgo contrasts with 545,000 shipped in 2009-10.

Pakistan was the only exporter to have its prospects increased, up 200,000 tonnes from November to 500,000 tonnes. That compares with 350,000 tonnes shipped in the preceding season and would be the same as in the two earlier years.

Upheavals, regime changes in leading flour importers
In revising its estimate of world trade in wheat flour during the 2010-11 season, the IGC only noted the impact of rising prices on demand for flour imports. The IGC said nothing about how the revolutions and political upheavals that have been occurring in recent weeks and months in countries ranking among the major flour consumers as well as global importers.

Much of the political and military upheavals in the North African and Arab nations was ascribed to widespread public dissatisfaction with dictatorial regimes. High food prices and even food shortages were often cited as core problems in these countries where flour-based foods account for a large part of the diet. Just how flour imports will be affected was not yet apparent. North Africa and the Middle East are the areas that have been experiencing internal turmoil, including regime changes and protests that have attracted considerable attention. These two regions account for 15% of world flour imports in 2010-11. In its latest estimates, the IGC estimated flour imports by North Africa at 370,000 tonnes in wheat equivalent, down from the prior estimate of 520,000 tonnes and also less than imports of 400,000 in 2009-10.

For the Near or Middle East, the latest IGC flour import estimate was 1,420,000 tonnes of wheat equivalent, down 200,000 from its takings in the prior year. As recently as 2007-08, Libya, the leading flour importer in North Africa, took 1,060,000 tonnes, which ranked it near the top as a flour importer. Its imports for 2010-11 were newly estimated at 350,000 tonnes. Iraq is the leading flour importer in the Middle East, accounting for expected takings in 2010-11 of 1 million tonnes, down by 200,000 tonnes from the preceding year.
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