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Syria plans 50,000-ton wheat tender amid unrest

Protest-wracked country, which consumes around 4.8 million tonnes of wheat a year, takes measures to boost its battered economy

Reuters, Friday 9 Sep 2011
Syria agriculture
Recent years have seen droughts take a heavy toll on Syrian agricultural production (Photo: Reuters)

The Syrian state plans to issue a tender to sell 50,000 tonnes of hard wheat in extra stock bought from farmers this year, its wheat marketing division said, as pressure rises on the economy from six months of pro-democracy protests.

In remarks published by the official state news agency on Thursday, the head of the General Establishment of Cereal Processing and Trade, Hoboob, said a higher than expected crop of hard wheat compared with the more needed soft variety prompted the decision.

"Sixty per cent of the volume received by the establishment this year was hard wheat compared with 40 percent last year," Suleiman al-Nasser said, without giving a date for the tender.

The state bought 2.5 million tonnes from farmers this year, he said, a slightly higher volume than 2010.

Hoboob has a monopoly on buying wheat from farmers, a legacy of Soviet-style command economy controls imposed by the ruling Baath Party when it took power in a 1963 coup.

The rest of Syria's wheat production, which officially stood at 3.4 million tonnes last year, down from 3.6 million in 2009, is kept for seeds, sold on the black market or smuggled. No overall production figures are available for this year.

The country, which is witnessing street protests demanding an end to the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad, consumes around 4.8 million tonnes of wheat a year.

Nasser did not say whether the unrest, during which human rights organisations say at least 2,000 civilians have been killed by security forces, has had an impact on wheat production, like other sectors of the economy, affected by a drying up of investment and deepening Western sanctions.

Syria had been a wheat exporter, mainly to Jordan and Egypt, since the 1990s, when the state intensified a subsidies programme that raised domestic production but encouraged illegal digging of ground wells that eventually exhausted the water table.

Persistent droughts, especially in eastern Syria, and wheat rust disease and the drying up of underground water have ravaged crops in the last several years, forcing the state to import wheat.

Imports have been running at an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million tonnes of soft wheat annually for the last three years. Nasser said the state's strategic reserve of wheat covered two years of domestic consumption.

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