Algeria is moving to slash grain imports in coming years as the government enacts urgent reforms to stop farm yields tumbling in times of drought.
The authorities were shocked into action in 2008 when the national grain harvest slumped to 2.1 million tonnes and the government scrambled for foreign cereals to feed the population of 34 million.
Algeria is one of the world’s biggest grain importers even when the domestic harvest is relatively good, sourcing an average of five million tonnes per year, mostly from the United States, Canada and the European Union.
Last year it imported 1.84 million tonnes of durum wheat and 3.84 million tonnes of soft wheat.
It is not the first time the North African country has announced a determination to produce more grain, but analysts say progress is more notable than in the past.
“We do have good results,” said Lies Kahouadji, an independent agriculture expert. “We do have a bigger surface of wheat sowed, we do have less bureaucracy, we do have an efficient plan to provide water during periods of droughts.”
The government last week set a minimum goal for annual grain production in years when rain is scarce.
“When rain is abundant our goal is to produce a good harvest, and in periods of drought we hope to produce at least four million. We can do it,” Agriculture Minister Rachid Benaissa told farmers at a ministry seminar in Algiers.
Rising exports of Algerian oil and gas have discouraged other homegrown industries and left the country heavily reliant on imports of food and consumer goods.
Benaissa’s predecessors focused more on securing foreign grain than boosting domestic production until global energy prices fell and the cost of grain rose on world markets.
Algerian cereals imports were little changed in 2008 in terms of volume but the international food crisis saw its grain import bill spike to $3.9 billion.
That year, Algeria’s grain stocks fell to the equivalent of one month’s consumption, said Benaissa.
“We sent a crew from (state cereals agency) OAIC to buy grain in the market and we asked it to double the price if necessary. They came back without a single grain, saying that producers had preferred to stock it,” he said.
Benaissa’s five-year plan includes technical assistance to Algerian farmers. Support prices for grain have risen and the cost of fertilizer and pesticides fallen.
Industry experts estimate as little as two per cent of Algeria’s grainland is irrigated and the government is building dozens of dams to help secure water supplies.
The government has promised more cheap loans for farmers who suffer from poor access to credit, partly because uncertainty over land ownership makes it harder to use title deeds as security to raise loans.
“We need more time to see whether Benaissa makes good on his plan. Algeria won’t stop importing wheat overnight, but gradually,” said an analyst who asked not to be named. “So far the plan is satisfying, but let’s wait and see.”
Algeria’s grain sector employs 675,000 people and uses an estimated 3.3 million hectares of land along the mostly desert country’s fertile coastal strip.
A former French colony, the country was a breadbasket and a net exporter of grain until independence in 1962, after which domestic harvests declined and the population grew.