Tunisian farmer Mondher Mathali overlooks a sea of swaying golden wheat and howls his combine harvester, a rumbling beast from 1976 that he fears could break at any moment.
Since the war in Ukraine pushed up global grain prices, import-dependent Tunisia has announced plans to grow its own durum wheat, which forms the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta.
The small North African country, like its neighbors, is desperate to stave off food shortages and social unrest – but even the basics are struggling for farmers on the sun-drenched plains north of Tunis.
“I would like to buy a new combine harvester, but that was only possible with government help,” says Mathali, 65.
He estimates that his outdated machine is wasting almost a third of the harvest. With spare parts hard to find, he worries that one failure could cost him his entire crop.
But even a used replacement would cost him an unimaginable sum: $150,000.
“Our production and even quality would increase by maybe 50 percent, even 90 percent, with government help,” he said.
“But our situation is getting worse and the state is not helping us.”
– ‘No passage’ –
Tunisia’s wheat production has suffered from years of drought and a decade of political instability, with 10 governments since the country’s 2011 revolution.
This has increased its dependence on imports. Last year it bought nearly two-thirds of its grain from overseas, much of it from the Black Sea region.
Those supply chains were rocked first by the coronavirus pandemic and then by the war in Ukraine, which last year provided around half of Tunisia’s imports of soft wheat for bread.
While soft wheat is said to continue to be imported, the country is pushing towards durum wheat self-sufficiency by the 2023 harvest.
That would be a valuable contribution to the national diet: the average Tunisian eats 17 kilograms of pasta a year, only the Italians surpass him.
In April, the government unveiled a program to give farmers easier access to better seeds, technical assistance and government-backed loans.
It also plans to use 30 percent more arable land for wheat and has dramatically increased the prices it pays growers.
But the chief of staff at the Department of Agriculture acknowledged Mathalis had problems.
“Tunisia has about 3,000 combine harvesters, 80 percent of which are old and very wasteful, which is a big loss,” Faten Khamassi said.
She said the state plans to fund farmer collectives to buy shared equipment.
– ‘Must choose’ –
Agricultural engineer Saida Beldi, who has been working with farmers in northern Ariana governorate for three decades, says political instability has gutted the sector.
With every new minister, “politics change,” she said. “There is no continuity.”
She said many farmers are struggling to obtain government-subsidized fertilizers, which are sold on the black market at inflated prices.
Khamassi said it is “certainly possible to achieve durum wheat self-sufficiency”.
But she said Tunisia faces a different dilemma: “Develop grain production for self-sufficiency or develop other crops like strawberries and tomatoes for export? We have to make a decision.”
International organizations have long urged poorer countries to focus on specific cash crops for export rather than growing staple crops.
A 2014 World Bank report argued that Tunisia “does not have a strong comparative advantage in grains” and should instead focus on “labor-intensive” crops because of cheap labour.
But in June, the lender announced a $130 million loan for emergency grain imports, saying it offers “incentives to sustainably increase domestic grain production” and reduce import dependency.
Today, Khamassi said, comparative advantage is “no longer relevant.”
“We need to go back to much more self-sufficient politics and local production,” she said.
– Times are changing –
The ministry also said in June it would allow foreign investors to fully own agricultural firms, rather than requiring at least one-third Tunisian ownership.
Khamassi said this would attract investment and create jobs.
However, economist Fadhel Kaboub said this strategy would make Tunisia even more vulnerable.
“Tunisian small farmers working on small plots of land will not be able to compete with large foreign investors with access to cheap credit from European banks,” he said.
“The business model of these companies is to push for cash crops for export to make dollars and euros – not to produce wheat to sell in the local market for dinars.”
For farmer Mathali, who wants to pass his business on to his son, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“Tunisia was the Roman Empire’s most important supplier of wheat,” he said, squinting in the summer sun.
“Why can’t we revive this?”
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