War clouds hopes for Syria's 2013 harvest too - UN

The United Nations, which last week said that Syria's 2012 grains harvest had fallen well below forecasts, cautioned over prospects for this year too, even as the war-torn country unveiled fresh wheat imports.

Dominique Burgeon, emergency director at the UN's food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, cautioned that hopes for Syria's winter wheat crop had been stemmed by "reduced availability of fertilizer, fuel, water and labour".

"It is anticipated that production levels will remain lower than normal," Mr Burgeon said.

An FAO mission last week said that nearly two years of civil war between rebels and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, had left Syrian agriculture "in tatters", and cut its estimate for last year's barley and wheat crop to less than 2m tonnes,  from a December estimate of more than 3m tonnes.

The US Department of Agriculture, whose grains estimates are particularly closely watched by investors, pegs last year's Syrian wheat harvest at 3.7m tones, and barley production at 800,000 tonnes near average levels.

'Certainly need to raise imports'

The slump in Syrian agriculture has sparked ideas of higher imports for a country which for most of the 20 years ahead of the conflict had reduced its dependence on buy-ins to a minimum, with the exception of a spike close to 2m tonnes following a poor harvest in 2008.

"Syria will certainly need to raise imports to meet its population's consumption requirements," Mr Burgeon said.

"However, considering the current situation of the country it is difficult to predict to what extent it will be able to face the challenge."

The FAO said in comments to "Our concerns are that we most probably will have to face two consecutive below-average harvests".

Disappointing crops, "coupled with a reduced capacity to import food will leave the population exposed to food shortages and increase n prices for the rest of 2013 and well into 2014".

Import order

While food is excluded from the Western sanctions on Syria, imposed amid dismay over the government's handling of unrest, banking restrictions have hampered the country's ability to finance purchases, and often required it to pay a premium to dealers.

Syria was on Wednesday revealed to have paid E298.70 ($403) a tonne for its latest purchase of soft milling wheat, likely sourced from the Black Sea.

Algeria was on Tuesday reported to have paid $400-410 a tonne for durum wheat, which usually commands a steep premium.

In the French cash market, durum is trading at E275 a tonne, a E30 a tonne premium to milling wheat, according to Paris-based consultancy Agritel.

'Very problematic situation'

Mr Burgeon added that while Syria has some wheat stocks to help provide "temporary relief" to a food supply squeeze which has left nearly 10% of the population in need of food assistance, on FAO estimates, "a deterioration of the food security situation is anticipated the coming months".

"Preliminary indications are pointing to a very problematic situation in the year to come," he said.

The FAO estimates that 3m Syrians are "at risk of food insecurity", and 2.5m "now in urgent need of food assistance".

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