Friday, 12 August, 2022
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Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

CEBALET BEN AMMAR, Tunisia: Tunisian farmer Mondher Mathali surveys a sea of swaying golden wheat and revs his combine harvester, a rumbling beast from 1976 which he fears could break down at any moment.

Since the Ukraine war sent global cereal prices soaring, import-dependent Tunisia has announced a push to grow all its own durum wheat, the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta, reports AFP.

The small North African country, like its neighbours, is desperate to prevent food shortages and social unrest -- but for farmers on the sun-baked plains north of Tunis, even the basics are problematic.

"I'd love to buy a new combine harvester, but I could only do it with help from the government," said Mathali, 65.

He reckons his outdated machine wastes almost a third of the crop. With spare parts hard to find, he fears a breakdown could cost him his entire harvest.

But even a second-hand replacement would cost him an unimaginable sum: $150,000. "Our production and even the quality would go up by maybe 50 percent, even 90 percent" with government help, he said.

"But our situation is getting worse and the state isn't helping us." 

Tunisia's wheat production has suffered from years of drought and a decade of political instability, with 10 governments since the country's 2011 revolution.

That has exacerbated its reliance on imports. Last year, it bought almost two-thirds of its cereal from overseas, much of it from the Black Sea region.

Those supply chains have been rocked first by the coronavirus pandemic and then by the war in Ukraine, which last year provided around half of Tunisia's imports of the soft wheat used in bread.

While it still plans to import soft wheat, the country is pushing for self-sufficiency in durum wheat by the 2023 harvest.

That would be a valuable contribution to the national diet: the average Tunisian eats 17 kilograms (37 pounds) of pasta per year, second only to Italians.

In April, the government unveiled a programme to help farmers access better seeds, technical assistance and state-backed loans.

It also plans to devote 30 percent more farmland to wheat, and has dramatically boosted the prices it pays growers.

But the agriculture ministry's chief of staff acknowledged Mathali's problems.

"Tunisia has about 3,000 combine harvesters, 80 percent of which are old and very wasteful, which represents a major loss," said Faten Khamassi.