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As a result of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), people are trying to stockpile food products. The situation on the ground naturally gives rise to the question of whether or not Georgia has enough of a food reserve. Since bread is a staple food, FactCheck tried to learn about Georgia’s wheat reserve and our annual wheat consumption.In 2018, the area sown to wheat in Georgia was 43,600 hectares. The wheat yield was 107,100 tonnes and the average yield per hectare was 2.5 tonnes.

Table 1: Wheat Yield and Area Sown to Wheat in 2015-2018

Year

2015

2016

2017

2018

Area Sown to Wheat (Thousand Hectares)

49.3

50.1

44.8

43.6

Wheat Output (Thousand Tonnes)

125.6

126.6

97.9

107.1

Average Wheat Yield (Tonne/Hectare)

2.6

2.6

2.2

2.5

Source: National Statistics Office of Georgia

According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, Georgia’s wheat consumption was 796,000 tonnes in 2018. Of that amount, food consumption was 642,000 tonnes. Of the total consumed wheat, local production is 107,000 tonnes whilst import constitutes 643,000 tonnes. Therefore, 81% of Georgia’s total wheat consumption as of 2018 is import and only 13% is local production (6% are the openinging stocks at the beginning of a year).

Table 2: Wheat Balance*

*Wheat products calculated from the total wheat consumption

Source: National Statistics Office of Georgia

As mentioned previously, according to the statistical data, wheat consumption for food in 2018 was 642,000 tonnes. Based on that figure, the average monthly consumption of food wheat in Georgia is 53,500 tonnes.

FactCheck requested information in regard to Georgia’s wheat reserves from Levan Silagava, ExecutiveDirectorof the Georgian Wheat and Flour Production Association. As stated by Mr Silagava, Georgia’s current wheat reserves amount to 75-80,000 tonnes which is sufficient for at least 1.5 months (and according to the statistical data, Georgia consumes nearly 80,000 tonnes of wheat in 1.5 months). In addition, wheat cargo ships are unloaded in Poti and Batumi. In addition, according to Mr Silagava’s information, businesses do not work with one-day reserves and they make stocks sufficient at least for a month. As stated by Mr Silagava: “In addition, business counted on tourism, mass events. Given the current situation, there are almost no tourists and mass events are prohibited. Therefore, the reserves which were intended for the needs of the population are augmented by that reserve as well. Accordingly, people can remain calm.”

The bulk of the wheat (annually 85%-90% on average) needed in Georgia is imported. In 2017-2018, the wheat self-sufficiency ratio did not exceed 15%. In 2018, there were 576,751 tonnes of wheat imported into Georgia which corresponds to USD 114.9 million in monetary value.

Table 3: Wheat Imports in 2015-2018

Year

2015

2016

2017

2018

Wheat(USD Thousand)

119,352.4

86,061.5

98,175.0

114,903.7

Wheat (Tonnes)

538,941.7

456,269.3

514,874.2

576,751.2

Average Price of Wheat (T)

USD 221

USD 188

USD 191

USD 199

Source: National Statistics Office of Georgia

In 2017 wheat was imported only from Russia. In 2018, wheat import from Russia amounted to 482,000 tonnes whilst imports from Kazakhstan amounted to only 94,000 tonnes which constitutes 16% of total imports. According to the preliminary data, a total of 171,000 tonnes of wheat were imported in the first six months of 2019. Of that amount, 117,000 tonnes of wheat were imported from Russia and the remaining 54,000 tonnes from Kazakhstan.

Currently, 90% of imported wheat comes from Russia which is an unreliable trade partner and often uses trade with other countries, including Georgia, for political purposes. The Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Natia Turnava, also believes that the wheat import diversification issue needs to be taken care of: “Wheat import has not yet been diversified. The bulk of the import is from the Russian market. In general, diversification is the best safeguard that we would not be vulnerable vis-à-vis the political decisions in any country.”

In July 2019, Natia Turnava met with the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Prodkorporatsia Kazakhstan’s national Food Contract Corporation and the Executive Director, Nurbek Daibekov, where the parties discussed wheat imports from Kazakhstan to Georgia. As stated after the meeting, the Kazakh side was going to provide subsidies for wheat transport into the Georgian market which would have lowered the tariffs by almost 50% and allowed Georgia to receive Kazakh wheat for more affordable prices. In spite of these expectations, only 60,000 tonnes of wheat were imported from Kazakhstan in 2019 which was lower as compared to the previous year. The low wheat yield was named as the reason.

Wheat is imported into Georgia by road (from Larsi), railroad and sea transport. The fact that Georgia has a land border with Russia gives advantage to Russian import in terms of road transport as compared to other wheat exporter countries.

FactCheck asked Koki Osipov, Head of the Poti Grain Terminal, to comment upon wheat import. According to Mr Osipov’s information, wheat imported from Larsi into Georgia is half illegal. Therefore, it is difficult to have competition with half-legal wheat which causes a price disbalance. The Poti Grain Terminal imports wheat only by railway and ships. As stated by Koki Osipov, railroad and sea shipments are subject to more regulations as compared to road shipments and conditions have to be equalised at least in this aspect. In order to ship cargo by rail and sea, 14 different types of documents are needed whist wheat from Larsi enters Georgia sometimes on the basis of a document issued in a village in the North Caucasus. Koki Osipov opines that bringing all cargo under equal conditions would create a more competitive environment which would regulate the wheat prices and simplify the diversification of wheat imports. According to Mr Osipov’s information, the road transportation of wheat impedes making a stock as well since when vehicles transport wheat, they import only the volume which is needed for short-term consumption which is not sufficient to make a stock.

Mr Osipov also emphasised that given the short distance, cargo shipment from Russia to Georgia by road is not subject to mandatory fumigation (cargo disinfection) in contrast to cargo shipped by rail and sea transport. Therefore, wheat coming from Larsi is less safe and the risk is higher that the wheat is infected with rodents and other pests.

The Government of Georgia sought to ban the import of wheat by land in 2018. On 22 August 2018, the Minister of Finance of Georgia, Ivane Machavariani, signed a decree which gave railroads and ports the exclusive right for importing and exporting wheat to and from Georgia whilst the import of wheat by any other means was to be prohibited. The Minister of Finance named queues at the Larsi border check-point, which hampered the movement of tourists, as the reason of the aforementioned decree. Mr Machavariani was also saying that the decision was not going to disrupt the economy or lead to price hikes on wheat. That decision was vehemently protested by the truck drivers in the same summer. The Ministry of Finance eventually agreed on concessions and postponed the land import ban until October 2019. However, in summer 2019, the Minister of Finance stated that ban on wheat import by land was revoked and there were no plans to impose it again.

The decision to ban land-based wheat imports had its supporters and detractors. Supporters argued that as a result of queues of wheat trucks at the Larsi border check-point, Georgia was losing a considerable amount of tourists whilst wheat was not stockpiled since trucks deliver wheat in amounts sufficient for a short period of time only. In addition, wheat quality inspection is hard, price of wheat imported by trucks from Russia is lower as compared to wheat shipped by vessels or rail and, therefore, it hampers the wheat import (from other countries) diversification process. However, opponents of the ban claimed that large shippers are importing by ships and rail which is much more expensive as compared to wheat delivered by trucks. Small importers and truck drivers have become a real headache for the large importers in the past years since they import wheat from Russia cheaply and compete with large players. Several years ago, there were only a few trucks importing wheat from Russia through the Larsi border check-point, although lately their share in the total wheat import has increased significantly. In addition, opponents of the ban on land-based wheat import noted that the interests of the large producers are strangely aligned with the interests of the Georgian government.

As we see, questions in regard to the prohibition of land-based wheat import were in the past and those questions remain unanswered. We, for ourselves, add that all business entities should have equal conditions on the wheat market and the state is responsible to ensure this.

The need to diversify wheat import has particularly emerged in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. It is important for Georgia’s food security to have a diversified import of wheat in order to avoid the risks of a deficit in wheat delivery and become less dependent on such an unreliable trade partner as Russia which often uses trade with Georgia for political purposes.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Russia imposed restrictions on some goods, (many countries also imposed trade restrictions, Eurasian Union member states – Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan banned exports of certain goods, including wheat and kibbled grains), including wheat: Russia imposed quotas – limits on wheat export. However, the Minister of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia, Levan Davitashvili, stated that Russia has more than enough wheat reserves and even under quotas, wheat import from Russia to Georgia will not be impeded. In addition, as stated by the Minister, Georgia has access to alternative sources of wheat. Levan Davitashvili said: “I would like to emphasise once again that the country has no problems in regard to wheat stock and acquisition and there will be no impediment.”