Middle East map
Water-scarce, war-torn region depends heavily on grain imports to feed its population.
The Middle East (made up of Near East Asia and North Africa countries) is a region of huge disparities, with some of the richest countries in the world and some of the most troubled. There are grain producing areas, but with water scarce the region is dependent on imports to feed its population. Conflict has caused disruption and big moves in population, adding to the demands on the region’s grains supply sector.

The International Grains Council (IGC) projects total grains production in 2016-17 in Near East Asia at 64.7 million tonnes, with Iran at 20.4 million, Iraq at 4.8 million, Syria at 1.4 million and Turkey at 34.9 million. It puts others at 3.4 million to make up the total. The IGC total does not include Egypt, the North African country is projecting a total grains crop of 15.6 million tonnes.

Syria’s grains production is sharply down from the level of 2013-14 when the annual total was 5 million tonnes.

The Near East Asia total includes 41.8 million tonnes of wheat, with 14.5 million in Iran, 3.8 million in Iraq, 2.4 million in Syria and 21 million in Turkey, while Egypt’s wheat production is put at 8.6 million tonnes.

The Near East Asia total for maize production is 9.3 million tonnes, 6.2 million in Turkey and 3.1 million in others. Egypt’s maize production is 6 million tonnes.

Barley is a significant crop, with a Near East Asia total of 12.3 million tonnes, including 3.3 million in Iran, 1.1 million in Iraq, 800,000 in Syria, 7 million in Turkey and 100,000 in others.

The region is a big importer. The IGC puts total grains imports by Near East Asia at 51.4 million tonnes. Saudi Arabia’s imports are put at 15.3 million tonnes, with Iran’s at 9.2 million tonnes and Turkey’s at 6.7 million tonnes. Iraq is projected to import 2.7 million tonnes, Israel 3 million, Jordan 2.6 million, Lebanon 1.5 million, UAE 2.5 million and Yemen at 3.7 million. Egypt’s total grains imports are forecast at 19.8 million tonnes.

Only Turkey is a significant grains exporter, sending 5 million tonnes abroad in 2016-17, according to the IGC’s forecasts. Of the total, 4.9 million tonnes is wheat.

The imports include 24.4 million tonnes of wheat for Near East Asia and 11.5 million for Egypt. Turkey’s wheat imports are 4.9 million tonnes, with Iraq and Iran both importing 2.5 million tonnes of wheat. Yemen imports 3.1 million tonnes of wheat.

Near East Asia maize imports total 14.4 million tonnes with 5.5 million going to Iran and 3.1 million to Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s maize imports are put at 8.3 million tonnes.

In a Grain Markets and Trade report in June, the USDA highlighted growing imports into the region. “Imports of feed grains (corn and barley) into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have expanded over the last decade,” it said. “This expansion has been driven by increases in poultry and livestock production as population growth and rising incomes encourage higher animal protein consumption.”

It named Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia as being among the primary drivers for maize with growth in barley driven mainly by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“Eight of the world’s top 10 barley importers are MENA countries, with Saudi Arabia accounting for more than one-third of global trade,” it said.

In May, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization held a conference on what it defined as the Near East region. FAO Director-General Graziano da Silva told it that conflicts are impeding the fight against hunger in the region, while growing food insecurity is compounded by rising water scarcity and a challenging natural resource situation that is exacerbated by climate change.

FAO said significant progress that had been made in curbing hunger is being eroded by the impact of strife in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The number of undernourished people in the broader Near East Asia and North Africa region doubled between 1990 and 2015, while the prevalence of undernourishment increased by 30%, Graziano da Silva noted.

The situation is particularly serious in Syria where 6.5 million people have been internally displaced while more than 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries and elsewhere. Half of the Syrian population that is left in the country needs food assistance.

“The damage to the capital stock in Syria has been estimated at $70 billion. The effect of the conflict has been devastating as the country has lost half of its livestock and agriculture production now barely reaches 40% of its pre-crisis level,” Graziano da Silva wrote at the time.

“The Syrian crisis is also creating huge costs for its neighboring countries. For Lebanon alone, this has reached 1.5% of its GDP per year, due to loss in trade and the adverse effects on tourism and infrastructure,” he said. “Jordan is generously sharing its natural resources with about 1 million Syrian refugees, in addition to those who fled from Iraq and Gaza in earlier times.

“This is all happening in a region that is considered the most arid in the world, which is facing an unprecedented escalation in water scarcity. The average availability of fresh water per capita stands at just 10% of the world average and is set to decline further as a result of increasing needs as well as the impacts of climate change.”

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Saudi Arabia policy change

Saudi Arabia wheat
Wheat production, imports in Saudi Arabia.
(in 1,000 tonnes)
In 2016, Saudi Arabia finally abandoned a long-standing policy designed to encourage local wheat production.

“The main reason for the policy change was a strong concern over the depletion of the country’s scarce water reserves, as the wheat crop is 100% irrigated,” the attaché said in a report on the sector. “This policy was a drastic departure from the country’s longstanding strategy of achieving wheat self-sufficiency that has been pursued since the early 1980s.”

The Saudi Grain Silos and Flour Mills Organization (GSFMO) was restructured and renamed as the Saudi Arabia Grains Organization (SAGO) in November 2015.

The USDA’s estimate for Saudi wheat production in 2014-15 was 722,233 tonnes. “The Saudi government is encouraging former wheat farmers to engage in alternative sustainable agricultural activities such as greenhouse farming and adopt advance drip irrigation techniques to produce fruits and vegetables,” the attaché said. “However, some small farmers may continue to produce small quantity of local wheat for sale to special customers for use in producing some traditional bakery products.”

The report quoted local agricultural experts as saying that the country’s total grains production for the following year would be less than 10,000 tonnes.

“The Saudi government is also encouraging agricultural companies to invest in foreign countries that have comparative advantage in producing certain crops and re-export their products back to Saudi Arabia,” the attaché reported. “The crops targeted by this initiative include wheat, rice, barley, yellow corn, soybeans and green forage. The Saudi government is providing financial incentives to encourage Saudi investors (companies and individuals) to take part in this food security initiative and invest overseas.”

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Egypt’s growing water problem

Egypt wheat
Wheat production, imports in Egypt.
(in 1,000 tonnes)
The USDA in Cairo forecasts that wheat and maize areas will remain unchanged in that country in the short run, “despite challenges in water management and high input costs.”

“In the next few years however, with more limited Nile water availability looming due to the construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam and because of heat stress issues and assuming salinity problems in the Northern Delta persist, absent the development of especially drought-tolerant seed varieties, a gradual reduction in planted area of wheat, rice and corn is expected,” the attaché said.

In the same report, the attaché outlined an attempted change from a system of maintained prices for grain, which had been vulnerable to fraud, to a system of direct payments to farmers. It failed because of strong objections from farmers.

Egypt has a growing water problem. “Amidst the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in the past 100 years, the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation declared a state of extreme emergency in early May to last until August in preparation for the summer crop season,” the Al-Monitor website reported in June. “The ministry also launched extensive campaigns to eradicate and burn water-thirsty rice crops.

“In villages, farmers intensified their demonstrations against agents from the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water Resources, who sprayed incendiary compounds on rice crops planted in violation of the ministry’s decision prohibiting the cultivation of rice, which it confined to an area of about 1 million acres in specific areas of the Nile Delta,” it said.

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Iran sanctions end

The end of sanctions imposed to deter Iran’s nuclear program mean that grain traders are looking forward to new opportunities in that country.

“Food wasn’t subject to sanctions, but the rules created enough difficulty to keep out many grain suppliers,” the Bloomberg news agency said in an article on the changes.

“When the sanctions came in you started to see some people shying off and not willing to take the risk anymore,” it quoted Michel Dumoulin, a trader at Rotterdam-based Nidera BV, as saying. “We’ve seen a lot of new, small players in the Caspian Sea. Russian and Ukrainian companies are entering the market in Iran.”