Analysis-Pasta makers cheer Turkey as its durum wheat flows abroad


By Ceyda Caglayan and Gus Trompiz

ISTANBUL/PARIS (Reuters) – Turkey’s spectacular breakthrough as an exporter of durum wheat has spared pasta fans another year of price pain and the country is poised to remain a crucial source of the ingredient prized in Mediterranean cuisine.

On track to be the world’s second-largest durum exporter in 2023/24, Turkey has helped fill a supply gap caused by a second drought in three years in top supplier Canada and stifled a price surge seen at the season’s start.

Global stocks of durum are still forecast to hit a three-decade low this season, according to the International Grains Council, an intergovernmental body. But Turkish shipments have averted an immediate shortfall and kept durum in line with easing world prices of staple grains.

Previously a net importer of the hard wheat whose milled flour is used to make pasta, couscous and certain types of bread in the Mediterranean region, Turkey has taken the market by surprise by exporting around 1.5 million metric tons of durum so far in the 2023/24 season ending in June.

“Turkey, by entering global markets as an exporter, changed the game,” Aykut Goymen, chairman of Turkey’s pasta industry association, said.

“I can say that it was not a one-off thing and it is sustainable for Turkey to be a durum exporter in the coming years.”

Turkey’s better-than-anticipated crop last year left stocks brimming following hefty imports made in response to high inflation and earlier drought.

Attractive prices for farmers, including a near 30% rise in the state’s purchase price last year, as well as investment in irrigation, have boosted sowing and yields. Weakness in the lira during an economic crisis also made Turkish durum more competitive overseas.

With growers planting more and weather staying clement so far, Turkish production is widely expected to set a second straight record this year above 4 million tons.

That comfortably surpasses the country’s annual domestic consumption of up to 3 million tons. Demand from its large export-focused pasta industry has been curbed by a shift to using cheaper soft wheat for cost-conscious markets in Africa and Latin America.

Analysts anticipate another year of substantial exports, even if Canadian output recovers, with the 2024/25 volume seen potentially exceeding 1 million tons again.

Turkish shipments, along with sizeable flows from Russia and Kazakhstan, have been a boon for importers in Italy.

“Pasta producers bought durum from Turkey because it was offered to us at competitive prices,” said Vincenzo Divella, co-CEO of the eponymous Italian pasta company.

“We had a big problem in Canada … In our country, the season was disastrous because of the weather and rains.”

The Turkish crop is seen in Italy as a good-quality option, though Canadian durum remains the benchmark for many processors.

Lower durum prices, which have fallen by at least one-fifth to return to where they were before last summer’s panic over Canada’s drought, are bringing relief for shoppers. Retail pasta prices in Italy in the two months to Feb. 25 were down 3.5% year on year, compared with a 7.4% rise over 2023, market data specialist Nielsen said.

With Europe now planning to use tariffs to shut out grain from Russia, in further fallout from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkish trade could become even more crucial.

“For durum, this could have major consequences, particularly for Italian imports,” Severine Omnes-Maisons, analyst at Strategie Grains, said of the proposed tariffs on Russia, which has supplied a fifth of EU durum imports so far in 2023/24.

Dwindling cultivation in the durum consumption heartlands of Europe and North Africa may also make the market more reliant on imported supply from Turkey.

Drought has gripped parts of the Maghreb and southern Europe in what analysts see as a sign that the zone is becoming too arid even for a crop that likes dry, warm conditions. Morocco’s cereal harvest is set to shrink by half this year.

In France, a regular supplier to EU neighbours, torrential rain could reduce this year’s durum area to a new 21st century low.

Importers have responded by scooping up crop from Turkey, Russia and Kazakhstan, a trio that Argus Media analyst Alexandre Marie sees as a potential “Canada on Europe’s doorstep”.

But some are cautious about Turkey’s long-term role given its state-managed grain supply and its own climate risks.

© Reuters. A person grates parmesan cheese over a plate of fettuccine with ragu at a restaurant in Rome, Italy, March 25, 2024. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

This season’s export campaign has been marked by uncertainty over how much exports the authorities will allow. State grain agency TMO this month cancelled an export tender.

“This season we were living day to day with Turkey. It remains a very political process,” one European durum trader said.