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September 19, 2010

South Africa looks to China market for surplus maize harvest

by Hopewell Radebe

The South African government has brought hope to grain farmers who are struggling to find alternative markets to dispose of surplus maize following a bumper crop that drove prices down.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat- Pettersson said SA is talking to China about a much-needed alternative market. The government is also hoping to attract new investment in agro- processing plants, she said.

SA, the continent’s largest producer of maize, produced a surplus of about 4-million tons for the 2009-10 season, but strict competition rules mean farmers are not allowed to pool the surplus in order to sell it internationally to the highest bidder.

“We’ve had our first round of negotiations with the minister of agriculture as well as the minister of imports in China,” Ms Joemat- Pettersson said ahead of her departure for China. She said that although China does not import maize as a necessity, “they import value- added products which would be cattle feed and poultry feed, so the discussions we are having would be to use some of the maize for value-addition, which would then mean that we set up systems for agro-processing for the surplus maize that we do have”.

Argentina, Brazil and China between them account for more than 60% of total maize output in the developing world, with China alone accounting for 45%.

The Agricultural Business Chamber welcomed the department’s efforts, saying that if the deal goes through it will “help stabilise the price” to acceptable levels.

John Purchase, CEO of the chamber, said if the minister succeeds in negotiating a long-term agreement with China, it will encourage farmers to plant more of the grain to supply a big market such as China. Grain SA, the body that represents most of SA’s maize, wheat and soya producers, last week estimated that up to 10800 small farmers face bankruptcy due to a record maize harvest of 13-million tons, which has driven prices down. It warned that almost 30% of commercial farmers could be out of business by next season.

In August, Grain SA chairman Neels Ferreira called for the interventions of the departments of trade and industry as well as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, saying the farmers want an urgent solution, given the danger of their produce being wasted because they cannot dispose of all of it in the local market.


He said the government also needs to reopen the debate on the ban on using maize for biofuel, imposed in 2008 when world maize stocks were dwindling and there was fear of compromising food security. Allowing maize to be sold for biofuel use would contribute to SA’s production of oil and also help the country reach its objectives for renewable energy, he said.

Grain SA estimated that the renewable energy, or biofuel, option would add 9% to the volume of oil produced in SA, create an extra 39% of protein feed for animal use, and add to the production of commercial carbon dioxide. It also estimates that 105000 jobs could be created by the biofuel process.

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