Business Maverick

EL NIÑO BITES

Crop Estimates Committee forecasts 12% fall in SA maize production

Crop Estimates Committee forecasts 12% fall in SA maize production
An employee unloads yellow maize from a truck at the Kaap Agri Ltd. grain silo in Malmesbury, South Africa. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In its first production forecast for the 2024 maize crop, South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee sees the tonnage falling 12.6% from last year’s bumper harvest. Previous expectations of another good haul evaporated under scorching skies in February as the El Niño weather pattern finally unleashed its wrath on the grain belt.

The Crop Estimates Committee’s (CEC) first production forecast for South Africa’s 2024 summer grain crops is a sobering read – and the next estimates may be worse. 

This will have potentially serious consequences for food inflation and security, as well as for the profit margins of commercial farmers. 

Overall, the CEC sees the combined production of maize, sunflower seed, soybeans, groundnuts, sorghum and dry beans falling 13.5% this season to just over 17.4 million tonnes from slightly north of 20.1 million tonnes in 2023.

It sees the maize crop down 12.6% to around 14.35 million tonnes from 15.43 million tonnes last year. Worryingly, production of the staple white maize is seen falling 17.2% to just over 7.04 million tonnes. 

For much of the season, there was a sense of optimism about the crop despite the emergence of El Niño, a global weather pattern triggered by a warming of surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific that often brings drought to this region. 

Outside the western parts of the grain belt, summer rains were not bad, and soil moisture levels were generally decent after three relatively wet summers – a consequence of a prolonged  La Niña, the polar opposite of El Niño.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Southern Africa looks set to dodge latest El Niño bullet 

Such optimism evaporated under scorching skies in February as El Niño finally unleashed its wrath across South Africa’s grain belt.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Upbeat SA agricultural assessments wither as El Niño bites

Many commercial farmers are now in a pickle. Hopes for another abundant harvest saw them plant more than 2.639 million hectares with maize, a slight increase compared with the 2.586 million tonnes sown last year.

That means they have spent more on inputs, but most will almost certainly reap a smaller crop.

One key factor that will protect their margins is that this state of affairs is likely to lift the price of maize. 

But that will hit consumers – notably those with low incomes who rely heavily on maize as a staple food – at a time when food inflation has been fading from wallet-sapping levels. 

“We worry about possible poor harvests if there is no widespread rain during these closing days of February into the first week of March,” Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, said in a note on the data. 

“South Africa must receive widespread rains this week or next week for the crop to recover from its current worrying state.” 

If those rains do not fall, the next production forecast in March may be even gloomier. 

Still, based on the current forecast, South Africa will have more than enough maize for domestic consumption and remain a net exporter of the commodity. But production size is everything in commodity markets and so the price is bound to rise.

In 2016, South Africa’s maize crop was only around 7.8 million tonnes because of an El Niño-inspired drought. The weather pattern’s scythe has at least been much blunter this year in South Africa’s summer grain-growing regions. DM

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