Ongoing drought boosts Algeria’s cereal imports

Peter McMeekin - Grain Brokers Australia February 6, 2024

Australia has recently been exporting durum to Algeria, including this 52,000t Flexi Grain cargo loaded in October by Riordan Grain Services at Geelong. Photo: Flexi Grain

ALGERIAN wheat and barley imports look set to remain at elevated levels in the 2024-25 marketing year with a delayed plant, below-average rainfall and poor soil-moisture conditions season to date expected to result in production similar to last year’s poor harvest.

Algeria was hit hard by drought throughout the 2022-23 growing season (equivalent to the 2023-24 marketing year), which began with seeding of the wheat and barley crops through October, November and December of 2022 and concluded with harvest in May, June and early July last year. The seedbed was dry when the crops were planted, and soil-moisture conditions remained well below average through to the cusp of harvest. Rain finally fell in late May and early June, leading to devastating localised flooding, some winter-crop losses, and extensive quality downgrades.

Demand exceeds production

The Algerian Ministry of Agriculture has yet to release any official 2023 harvest data, but a vague press release late last year pegged production at 30 million quintals, or 3 million tonnes. Yields as high as 50-60 quintals per hectare (5-6t/ha) were recorded in some wilayas (provinces), thanks to the use of supplementary irrigation which boosted output on 13 percent of the cropped area, despite the drought conditions.

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service believes that final cereal production from last year’s harvest was even lower at 2.8Mt off a harvested area of 3.1Mha for an average yield of just 0.9t/ha across both dryland and irrigated crops. This compares to the 2022 harvest when output was 4.1Mt off the same area for a mean yield of 1.32t/ha. Average wheat and barley production in the five harvests from 2018 to 2022 were 3.44Mt and 1.48Mt respectively for a total fractionally less than 5Mt.

The planted area and output projections for the current season are unchanged compared to the previous corresponding period, with drought conditions again a major challenge. The wheat and barley areas are estimated at just under 2.1Mha and just over 1Mha respectively, with production sitting at 2.7Mt and 1Mt. Despite efforts by the government to increase the area planted to winter crops, the FAS believes many Algerian farmers plant the maximum area in their holdings, but do not seek to expand their farms due to the country’s complicated land-ownership structures.

The latest Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) imagery indicates that the plant growth is below average in the highlands and the west of the country but close to normal on the Mediterranean coast and eastern wilayas. Overall vegetation conditions look sparse in much of the country’s main grain production areas, with these regions again missing substantive rain this growing season.

More than 90pc of winter crop output in Algeria occurs within 300 km of the Mediterranean coastline, and it is broken up into three similar sized regions: western (bordering Morocco), central and eastern (bordering Tunisia). The eastern region is the leading wheat growing area, with 35pc of total output. The western region accounts for 31pc, the central region 26pc and desert areas further south around 8pc. Barley is the opposite, with the western area accounting for 40pc of total production, the eastern region 31pc, 14pc in the desert districts and only 12pc in the central wilayas.

Algeria is among the world’s largest consumers of wheat and the second-largest wheat market in Africa behind Egypt. The staple grain represents 60pc of the food ration in the North African nation of just over 44 million people. Domestic wheat demand is around 11.2Mt with almost all going into flour and bread production. On the other hand, barley is primarily used in stockfeed rations, with a small portion used in bread and couscous for human consumption.

Algeria was quite an active buyer of wheat in January, purchasing at least 350,000t durum wheat early in the month in an international tender for February and March shipment, followed by as much as 900,000t of milling wheat in a mid-month tender for first half and second half April shipment periods.

Durum US$450/t plus

Canada was reportedly the dominant origin for the durum wheat, with Mexico and Australia reportedly enjoying a piece of the pie. In the absence of official reporting from Algeria’s state grains agency OAIC, prices were estimated at around US$450/t cost and freight for panamax cargoes, and as high as $470-$475/t for handymax cargoes of Canadian and Australian origin. Algeria is traditionally the largest export destination for Mexican durum, and Australia has supplied two cargoes totalling 82,000t in the past year.

Like durum, the milling-wheat tender was optional origin, with French and European Union-Black Sea sellers, including Romania and Bulgaria, tipped as the most likely suppliers. While eligible, and despite its exporters expanding aggressively into the Algerian market in the past couple of years, Russian wheat is not expected to be shipped in large volumes against this tender.

Record wheat import

FAS currently expects wheat imports to be a record 8.7Mt in the 2023-24 marketing year, eclipsing the previous high of 8.4Mt set in 2016-17. That is up from 8.1Mt in 2022-23 on the back of lower production, stable domestic demand and strengthening wheat-reserve procurement. FAS also expects wheat imports to remain at or near record levels in the 2024-25 marketing year unless there is a major turnaround in this season’s crop outlook over the next few months. Substantial and sustained rainfall would be required to have a significant impact.

Wheat exports to Algeria in the first five months of the 2023-24 marketing year (July to November) put wheat from all origins except Russia at 1.4Mt against 2.6Mt in the previous corresponding period. The EU was the biggest supplier in both periods, but volume has fallen from 2.18Mt in 2022 to 1Mt in 2023. However, Russian export data suggests that the Black Sea exporter supplied 1.3Mt of wheat to Algeria in the July to November 2023 period, up from 300,000t a year earlier. That puts the 2023-24 import pace only slightly behind that of 2022-23.

The livestock sector drives Algeria’s barley consumption, and low rainfall typically increases demand due to reduced pasture growth. The barley import estimate for the 2023-24 marketing year currently stands at 700,000t, up from around 250,000t a year earlier. It is a case of “rinse and repeat” in 2024-25, with exports presently expected to be unchanged unless the grassland situation recovers significantly in the boreal spring.


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