There are growing worries on the supply of wheat, and hence of bread, in Syria in the coming months as the FAO warns of a severe decline in this year’s crop.
On June 12, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations said that this year’s wheat crop will be lower than last year’s, which was at 2.3 million tons, and well below the annual average of around 3.6 million tons.
This figure is to be compared with the annual consumption of wheat, which stands at around 4 million tons. In other words there could be a gap of up to 2 million tons between demand and supply.
The level of the wheat crop is traditionally followed very seriously in Syria because bread is the main staple food for the population but the issue has now become much more serious because bread represents a growing part of the food consumption of the many Syrian families that have fallen into poverty in the last two years.
The estimate of the government is more optimistic than that of the FAO. The General Establishment for Cereals Trade and Processing – which is also known as HOBOOB – has said that it targets a crop of around 3.16 million tons, down from 3.6 million tons in previous forecasts. HOBOOB plans to purchase from farmers around 2.5 million tons, while the rest is expected to be sold independently by the farmers.
Because it considers wheat a strategic crop, each year the government commits to buy from farmers any volume of the crop they produce, at a given fixed price, which is traditionally higher than market prices – besides wheat there are two other strategic crops in Syria, cotton and sugar beet.
In order to fill the gap between demand and supply the government plans to import wheat from global markets. Earlier this year, Nawaf Al-Ali, the head of HOBOOB, said that Syria planned to import this year a total of 1.1 million tons.
In practice, several shipments have already reached Syrian ports in recent months. According to the Reuters news agency, some 220,000 tons of wheat were imported between February and May, including 90,000 tons from France.
The government has also announced that it had imported from Ukraine 300,000 tons of wheat and that it sought to buy 300,000 additional tons from that country.
The goal of the government to reach a target of 3.16 million tons can sound ambitious given that most of the country’s wheat is grown in the north-eastern part of the country, which is facing significant levels of violence and which is largely under the control of the opposition. Around a third of Syria’s wheat crop is traditionally grown in the province of Hassakeh and another third in the provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa.
For the government to keep adequate supplies to the city centres that it still largely controls, the major issue will therefore be of how to ensure steady supplies of wheat from the opposition-controlled northeast. Should it be unable to do that, it will have to resort to larger volumes of imports, straining further its already tight finances.