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Egypt coaxes wheat from local farmers as foreign suppliers balk
[CAIRO] The world's biggest wheat buyer is boosting purchases from local growers in a push to stockpile grain as the coronavirus puts international supplies at risk.
Egypt bought 1.6 million tons of local wheat in the first three weeks of the harvesting season that began in mid-April, according to the agriculture ministry. That's almost double the amount it bought in the same period last year. The government is also offering farmers higher prices.
The most populous Arab nation is buying as much home-grown wheat as it can to build inventories and produce enough state-subsidized bread for its more than 100 million people, many of whom live in poverty. Although Egypt once supplied wheat to ancient Greece and Rome, it now must import about 60% of what it consumes. Yet, Russia and other major grain producers are curbing exports to protect their own food security amid the pandemic.
"The state is focused on securing basic commodities, especially wheat," the supply ministry said in a written response to Bloomberg questions. "We've also taken measures to encourage farmers to sell more wheat to the government to boost reserves."
The new steps include setting a purchase price of 700 Egyptian pounds (S$62.42) per ardeb (150 kilograms, 331 pounds), slightly higher than last year. The government has allocated 5.2 million Egyptian pounds for immediate crop payments. In a sign of urgency, farmers and wheat-procurement workers are exempt from the nightly nationwide curfew the government has imposed to contain the virus.
Wheat is politically sensitive in Egypt. Millions of people depend on subsidized bread, and shortages can spark protests and social unrest. The country's purchases from overseas provide a reliable benchmark for the international grains market -- of some 20 million tons of wheat that Egypt consumes annually, it imports about 12 million.
This year the government targets buying 3.6 million tons of local wheat, up from 3.2 million in 2019. It also plans to import 800,000 tons of wheat during the local harvest season -- an uncommonly large amount, considering this is a time when Egypt tends to pause its international supply tenders.
However, the state buyer -- the General Authority for Supply Commodities -- has managed to import just 240,000 tons of wheat since the local harvest began. The GASC's latest tender last month drew offers from just five companies, the fewest in more than a year. International producers are focused on building up their own strategic reserves, and Russia, Egypt's top wheat supplier, has put a cap on exports.
"The price the government pays for wheat this year is slightly better, but what's different is we're getting paid right away, without any complications," said Mohamed Abu Zaid, who planted 5 feddans (2.1 hectares, 5.2 acres) of wheat this year on his land in Al-Gazayer village in Alexandria province. "We're getting paid within 48 to 72 hours -- way better than last year."
The North African nation has so far been spared any scenes of mass panic-buying during the pandemic. Government officials and even supermarket chains have sought since the beginning of the global crisis to reassure citizens that Egypt is well-stocked with staple foods.
While farmers usually hold back much of their crop for their own households, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi himself went on TV this season to urge them to sell as much as possible to the government.
"Yes, we're well organized, and we have good reserves, but with the uncertainty until December, I say it would be better if you only store at home what's necessary," Mr El-Sisi said last month. "Sell it to the government to keep it for the benefit of everyone."