190916 wheat
A combination of combat, fast-moving sanctions announcements and surging freight and insurance costs is propelling the grain to its highest price in more than a decade. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Cairo: What can the world’s biggest buyer of wheat do when supplies from mainstay providers Russia and Ukraine are choked by war? For Egypt, it could mean pressing ahead on a delicate venture: raising the price of subsidized loaves for the first time in four decades.

Russia and Ukraine delivered 86 per cent of Egypt’s wheat imports in 2020, according to the United Nations, and the combination of combat, fast-moving sanctions announcements and surging freight and insurance costs is propelling the grain to its highest price in more than a decade. That carries extra resonance in this North African nation, where rising food costs contributed to the Arab Spring protests a decade ago.

Egypt already was struggling to maintain the subsidy used by about 70 million people in the face of a pandemic, and war could make things worse. Current wheat stocks are sufficient for at least four months, but shipments from much of the Black Sea region are stalled by the conflict, likely pushing prices even higher.

Rising bread prices

“We expect that the Russian-Ukrainian war will speed up the bread-price issue,” Saied Abu Mohamed, a 45-year-old father of two, said while lining up for subsidized bread in Cairo’s al-Khalifa neighborhood. “On many occasions, we hear officials insisting on reviewing bread prices. The opportunity has come to them on a golden plate.”

The average price for imported wheat has risen to about $350 a ton, compared with $250 last year, supply minister Aly El-Moselhy said in a television interview Monday night. The budget for this fiscal year is based on $255, according to finance ministry documents.

Wheat soars to 14-year high
The world's staple grains extended their blistering rally as Russia's attack on Ukraine stifles shipments from some of the biggest suppliers.

Wheat futures rocketed past $10 a bushel for the first time in more than a decade, and corn leaped to a nine-year high. Soybean oil also hit a record. That's giving fresh impetus to accelerating global food inflation.

The supply disruptions are likely to spill over into the next season, and potentially for even longer. Ukrainian farmers - many engaged in the defence of their country - appear unlikely to plant spring crops as usual, and Russia is facing sweeping penalties on its financial system. Plus, infrastructure is being damaged in the midst of the war.

"The market is pricing in lost trade coming from the Black Sea region," Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at StoneX, said in a note. "But it hasn't yet started to factor in a year of lost production from Ukraine."

Benchmark soft red winter wheat futures jumped by the daily limit for a third straight session in Chicago to $10.59 a bushel. The price has surged nearly 40 per cent this year, increasing the cost of everything from bread to cakes and noodles. Milling wheat climbed to a record in Paris. Corn - which feeds the world's hogs and chicken herds - leaped 3 per cent to $7.47 a bushel Wednesday, the most since 2012.

The higher prices put pressure on the budget deficit. While lifting subsidies could put millions of Egyptians under increased economic strain, it would help shore up state finances.

The most-populous Arab nation allocated about 22 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.4 billion) for wheat imports and another 18 billion Egyptian pounds to subsidize local production.

The government expects about 5 million tons from the local harvest, an increase from previous estimates of 4 million tons, and that should boost stocks enough to cover consumption until November, the minister said.

“I want to assure people that there’s no need to worry,” he said. “There’s a political will and vision to maintain wheat reserves, and the government is availing the necessary funds for that.”

Any conversation about removing bread subsidies was unheard of in the past, and the current government of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was the first to put the debate out in public. He’s pushing for an expansive overhaul of the economy, tackling everything from infrastructure to how the subsidies are allocated.

The president last year called for raising prices of subsidized bread to ease the strain on government coffers. The government also could downsize the program so only the poorest people - about 25 million - qualify for subsidized bread, El-Moselhy said. Prices for them wouldn’t change.

“If we don’t study and analyze the situation to make sure the system benefits the most needy, then we will be in the wrong,” he said.

Bread is so central to north African diets that Egyptians and Moroccans refer to it as “living.” Leaders in the region have spent hundreds of billions of dollars making staples such as bread, cooking oil and sugar affordable. That was seen as a way for governments to gain legitimacy and pacify the population.

A subsidized loaf in Egypt sells for the equivalent of about 1 U.S. cent. The country allocates five loaves a day to people in the program and uses the public treasury to compensate bakers for their losses.

North Africa gets about half its wheat from Russia and Ukraine - which capitalize on lower production costs and rich, fertile soil - and the conflict is forcing Egypt’s neighbors to pivot.

Tunisia is looking to Uruguay, Bulgaria and Romania for alternative supplies, the agriculture ministry said last week.

Morocco relies on the Black Sea region for about 25% of its soft imports, and it expects a few cargoes to arrive in coming days, said Abdelkader El-Alaoui, chairman of the Moroccan millers’ group FNM.

“Only a fool relies on a single source, so we are turning to Argentina, France and Poland to make up for any problems affecting supplies from the Black Sea,” El-Alaoui said.