WITH a voracious appetite for wheat and a booming population of 35 million it is no wonder that wheat is big business in the North African nation of Morocco.
Although Morocco brings up for Australians images of sand-blasted deserts and oasis towns, there is an ample band of fertile land in the country capable of producing big crops, primarily wedged in between the coast, especially in the north of the country, and the mountain ranges, including the Rif and the Atlas Mountains.
Rainfall can range from 250mm annually up to 750mm in some coastal environments, but much of the nation's wheat is grown in conditions familiar to Aussie farmers, with rainfall ranging from 300 to 450mm.
The area around Meknes, inland from the Atlantic Coast, is regarded as the nation's breadbasket and yields can be impressive.
"Last season we had good rain and yields got up to 7 tonnes a hectare," said Meknes-based Aziz Zine el-Abidine.
However, he said with climate change, rainfall had become less reliable and virtual total crop failure was possible.
"When we first switched to a no-till system back in 2007 the crop planted conventionally yielded just 0.1t/ha."
In spite of total national production that can top 7m tonnes in a good year, Morocco is always a net importer of wheat.
"It is unlikely we will ever become self-sufficient in wheat, the consumption is too high," said respected farm systems specialist Mohamed El Mourid, who has worked for years in developing conservation agriculture in Morocco.
With total demand ranging between 8-10 million tonnes, it means Morocco normally imports around 3-5m tonnes of a mixture of bread and durum wheat.
The bread wheat comes from a range of freight-advantaged origins, including Europe, Argentina, North America and the Black Sea region, with no clear preference for any one style of wheat.
It is a different story on the durum front, which can comprise up to a third of total imports, much higher than in other net importers, due to its use in both couscous and in the flour ration for certain popular styles of local bread.
There is a clear preference for the bright yellow durum of Canada and to a lesser extent Turkey, with European types not preferred by the market.
This has occasionally opened up opportunities for durum producers in Australia, with Australian government sources in North Africa saying that 60,000 tonnes of Australian durum was exported to Morocco in 2017 when it could not find other sources.
In particular, ICARDA senior wheat breeder Tadesse Wuletaw said the durum wheat produced in northern NSW was suitable for Moroccan requirements.
However, the massive distance involved means the market is likely to remain opportunistic and reliant on cheap world sea freight rates.
* Gregor Heard travelled to Morocco with assistance from the Crawford Fund and with financial support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Council on Australia Arab Relations.