February 2, 2011 in City

Unrest in Egypt concerns Washington wheat farmers

By The Spokesman-Review

The political unrest gripping Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries has wheat farmers half a world away in Washington worried.

Egypt is the world’s largest wheat buyer, securing enough grain to feed its 80 million people.

Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance, said the average Egyptian eats about 400 pounds of baladi bread each year. It is a pita-like bread baked for peasants – round and doughy. By comparison, Americans on average eat about 135 pounds of bread per year.

If turmoil in the streets of Egypt turns anti-American, the ramifications will be felt across the Palouse and the rest of Eastern Washington.

“There’s not much we can do about anything,” Mick said. “Right now everybody that does business in Egypt is just sitting in a chair worrying.”

The worry extends beyond Egypt. Regime change is afoot across the Middle East, including in Yemen, where less-publicized protests are gathering momentum.

Together, Egypt and Yemen bought 20 percent of the wheat exported from Pacific Northwest during the past eight months, paying hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mick anticipates more sales this winter and spring – especially since most of the wheat available on the global market is from the United States.

While sales in the short term would help boost an already strong year for regional farmers, Egypt and Yemen represent long-term customer relationships Mick wants maintained.

“Change is sweeping through the region,” Mick said, “targeting countries where ruling parties … have been in power for 30 years and more.”

Reuters news service reported this week that the Egyptian protests have disrupted grain imports, including some from the United States.

Wheat prices have been volatile as other countries in the Middle East attempt to buy more wheat and stave off sudden spikes in food prices or fears of food shortages.

In Egypt, the government controls purchases and the price paid. Some private millers buy higher-quality wheat to satisfy the upper and middle classes.

Egypt has reported that it has stockpiled a six-month supply, easing food security fears while the country’s political leadership attempts to orchestrate elections and a change of power.

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