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SA Business
Nov 26 2012 3:04PM
 
Droughts and cold weather may continue to damage crops – to the detriment of prices
SCORCHED EARTH: It will be a bad year for farmers. Picture: Gallo Images
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Jim Jones

South Africa’s hard-pressed households may have to tighten their belts even further before they can hope for some relief on basic food prices.

Tucked inside October’s inflation figures last week was an 8% rise for bread, eggs and milk. And the way things are looking, the next few months could see further advances. Let’s look at bread and its basic input, wheat.

Though South Africa grows wheat, we are always a net importer. The last time we produced enough so that we didn’t need imports was during the bumper crop years of 1987 and 1988.

Our country’s climate and soils don’t let us produce all we eat – unlike that other staple, mealies. This year hasn’t been good for our wheat farmers – initial estimates are that they will harvest 1.76Mt, fractionally just more than half of what we’ll eat. It comes at a time when wheat harvests across the globe have been suffering from lousy weather, pushing up prices.

All across the wheat-growing regions of America, the world’s largest exporter of the grain, two years of crippling droughts, reckoned as the worst in 56 years, have left soils desiccated with little immediate relief in sight.

Farmers on the Great Plains are hoping for heavy snowfalls this northern winter, falls needed to replace soil moisture.

Trouble is that warm weather has accelerated the maturing of the already-planted seedlings of the red winter wheat that normally provides more than half of the total US crop. So, normally pessimistic farmers fear, if cold weather hits there could be a lot of crop damage. According to the US Department of Agriculture, by mid-November only 34% of the nation’s winter wheat seedlings were reckoned to be good or excellent, the lowest percentage since records started in 1956.

Conditions are not any better in Australia, the world’s fourth exporter, where harvesting is in full swing. Drought in Western Australia hammered crops, pointing to a countrywide harvest well below last year’s record high.

In Argentina, rains and flooding have damaged crops and the agriculture ministry’s latest monthly report paints a gloomy picture of smaller harvests this season.

Thank goodness for Ukraine where, with this year’s winter wheat sowing now completed, weather conditions are promising an excellent crop.

That’s different from neighbouring Russia, normally ranking behind America, Canada the EU and Australia, where hot, dry conditions slashed this year’s crop and where Moscow’s officials are watching weather conditions closely, wondering whether the country will be able to export or whether production will need to be kept at home to feed Russians themselves.

Of course, these things tend to go in cycles – the biblical seven fat years followed by seven lean. And just as Joseph helped save Egypt by storing in the good years, today there are global stocks that should ensure the world doesn’t starve – though at a price.

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