TUNIS, TUNISIA — Tunisia’s sowing of 2016 winter grains is currently under way, according to a Dec. 14 GIEWS Country Brief from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Irregular but so far average cumulative rains characterized the beginning of the agricultural season. Normal availability of seeds and fertilizers is reported. About 1.4 million hectares are expected to be planted with cereals.

To improve access to credit for small and medium-sized agricultural producers and facilitate their integration to commercial banking, Tunisia is progressing with automatic debt relief, FAO said.

The 2015 winter grain harvest in Tunisia concluded at the end of June. Although favorable weather conditions prevailed for the most part of the season, excessively hot weather (up to 45 degrees Celsius) led to heat-related damages to late developing wheat in early grain-filling stages.

In 2015, a well below-average cereal harvest of 1.3 million tonnes was gathered. At this level, the crop is over 40% lower than last year’s above-average crop and some 32% below the previous five-year average. Most of the grain produced is wheat which in 2015, at about 900,000 tonnes, recorded a decrease of 40% compared to last year’s above-average harvest. In Tunisia, crop production varies markedly from year to year depending on the significant rainfall variations. Irrigated wheat area represents less than 15 percent of the total wheat area planted.

The FAO noted that Tunisia relies heavily on grain imports, mainly wheat, even in good production years. Accordingly, cereal import requirements in the current 2015-16 marketing year (July/June) are put at about 3.5 million tonnes, about 20% higher than last year and 15% higher than the five-year average.

In spite of the country’s high import dependency rate, changes in international grain prices do not translate into changes in domestic prices, mainly due to Tunisia’s subsidies on basic food items. Prices of wheat products, the main staple in the country, are relatively stable, as reflected by the very low inflation of bread and cereals (less than 3% on a yearly basis since January 2012).

Overall, the food and beverage Consumer Price Index (CPI) in November 2015 recorded 3.4% on a year-on-year basis, compared to over 7% in May 2015.

The economy was slowly recovering from the 1.8% contraction in 2011, reaching about a 2.3% growth in 2014. The FAO said recent terrorist attacks and their negative impact on the economy, in general, and the hard currency earnings, in particular, together with the slow recovery in the E.U. (Tunisia’s main trading partner) contributed to a weak growth of about 0.8% in 2015.

The unemployment rate remains at a high level (15.2% in the first quarter of 2014, a slight decrease from the 19% in 2011). Youth unemployment (15 to 29-year-olds) remains particularly high reaching over 30% in 2012, the FAO said.