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Crop Estimates Committee slashes SA maize forecast, sees 2024 harvest down 19% as El Niño bites

Crop Estimates Committee slashes SA maize forecast, sees 2024 harvest down 19% as El Niño bites
An irrigation system, idled due to load shedding, in a dry maize field at Merrydale Farm near Frankfort, South Africa, 2 June 2023. (Photo: Michele Spatari / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) has slashed its initial production forecast for maize and other summer crops in the wake of late summer heatwaves triggered by El Niño. Domestic food inflation was cooling, but it looks set to heat up again.

South Africa’s maize production is forecast to fall over 19% in 2024 to 13.255 million tonnes from the bumper harvest of 16.430 million tonnes that was reaped last year, the CEC said on Tuesday. 

This is largely a consequence of droughts linked to the El Niño weather pattern, which is sweeping a scythe of misery across southern Africa. 

The big concern is the outlook for staple white maize, the main source of calories for many poor and working-class households in South Africa and the region. 

The CEC pegged white maize output at 26% lower in 2024 – 6.277 million tonnes – a forecast that will likely have grim implications for domestic inflation, food and household incomes. 

It also means that South Africa will have little if any white maize to spare to export to countries in the region that have also seen their crops wither.  

This was the CEC’s second production estimate for the 2024 South African summer crop season. In its first, released a month ago, it predicted a maize crop of almost 14.4 million tonnes, down 12.6% from 2023. 

Since then, heat waves and a dearth of rain have seared much of the platteland, and so the CEC, as expected, slashed its first production forecast. And it may wield the panga again.

The production of yellow maize, used mostly for animal feed, is not seen falling as steeply as white maize, with the CEC pegging its harvest about 12% lower. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s summer crop production prospects remain bleak

This is partly because the lion’s share of it is planted in the eastern flank of the maize belt in Mpumalanga, which has had better rains than the central and western regions where most of the white maize grows. 

South African yellow maize futures prices are up about 4.5% over the past 12 months, while white maize prices have climbed over 23%, according to data provided on 

And it’s not just maize, though it is the focus of attention because of its importance. Production for summer crops across the board – including soybeans and sorghum – is seen significantly lower in 2024.

In total, the CEC sees summer crop production for 2024 falling to 15.589 million tonnes from over 20.1 million tonnes last season, a decline of over 21%.

For commercial farmers whose crops have been devastated, this will be a big loss following the input and other costs that were spent on this season. 

But those who get a good yield – and the impact has been very uneven, according to officials at the main industry body Grain SA – will benefit from rising prices. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: El Niño’s impact has been erratic for SA commercial grain farmers 

The outlook has changed dramatically for the worse over the past six weeks as El Niño, which often brings drought to this region, only unsheathed its claws in late summer over much of the grain belt. 

The timing could hardly be worse as South African food inflation has been cooling, slowing to 6% in February on an annual basis from 7% in January. 

There will be a time lag of a few months between the unfolding situation in the fields and the price consumers pay in the shops. 

The bottom line is that food inflation looks set to heat up again.

This will not be lost on the Monetary Policy Committee of the South African Reserve Bank, which is widely expected to hold rates steady again on Wednesday. It crafts monetary policy based on the expected trajectory of inflation, and the trajectory for food prices – a big part of the consumer price index basket – is on the upside again.  

El Niño – triggered by a warming of surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific – is at least expected to fade by June. It could soon be replaced by its opposite in the global weather dance, La Niña, which usually heralds good rains in this region. 

Both patterns are natural but are becoming more extreme because of human-induced climate change. 

One legacy of the previous and prolonged La Niña is that South Africa still has carry-over stocks of more than a million tonnes of maize, and if this latest CEC estimate pans out, supplies should be adequate for domestic consumption. 

But that leaves little for South Africa’s hungry neighbours – Zambia has declared a drought disaster – and there are scant white maize supplies on global markets. Also, the final crop in South Africa could be worse than currently expected. 

“While this expected harvest could still meet South Africa’s annual maize consumption of roughly 12 million tonnes, leaving the country with a small export volume, the figure remains tentative,” Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, said in a commentary on the CEC’s estimates. 

“The weather conditions have not improved in most regions of South Africa. We worry that there could be a further downward revision of the crop forecasts.” DM

Absa OBP

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