ABU DHABI/CAIRO, Sept 19 Egypt's ability to
import one of its most essential commodities, wheat, has been
thrown into question amid repeated failed tenders, a result of
suppliers shunning the world's top buyer because of its strict
policy on the ergot fungus.
Over the past year Egypt has flip-flopped on its policy
towards the common grain fungus, which can lead to
hallucinations but is considered harmless at minor levels.
Last month's decree reinstating zero tolerance for ergot
rattled world grain markets and threatened to disrupt Egypt's
bread subsidy programme, on which tens of millions of the
country's poorest rely.
Below is a timeline of the controversy:
December 2015: A 63,000-tonne shipment of French wheat sold
by Bunge to Egypt's state grain buyer, the General
Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), is rejected by the
agriculture quarantine authority for containing trace levels of
Jan. 6, 2016: Egypt's quarantine head, Saad Moussa, says the
authority is applying a zero-tolerance ergot policy despite the
supplies ministry and GASC stipulating 0.05 percent tolerance.
Jan. 14, 2016: The supplies ministry insists it will keep
its 0.05 percent tolerance level for ergot.
Jan. 31, 2016: GASC confirms Bunge's French wheat shipment
has been rejected, saying it contained an ergot level higher
than 0.05 percent. Bunge denies this.
Feb. 3, 2016: Egypt's agriculture ministry says it will
accept 0.05 percent ergot in wheat shipments, while the
quarantine authority, an agency that falls under it, says
anything above zero will be turned away.
Feb. 7, 2016: After two GASC purchase tenders are cancelled
due to low turnout, Egypt seeks to reassure the global market.
The supplies and agriculture ministries stress they will adhere
to a 0.05 percent ergot level.
Feb. 9, 2016: Bunge launches legal proceedings against GASC.
Feb. 17, 2016: Under mounting pressure from trader boycotts
of its purchase tenders, GASC distributes a letter to suppliers
from the agriculture ministry stating it will adhere to a 0.05
percent tolerance level.
March 2, 2016: Reuters reveals agricultural quarantine
continues to apply zero tolerance in part because of an old
decree governing it that calls for zero ergot. That is at odds
with a separate regulation, used by GASC, that allows 0.05
March 6, 2016: Egypt replaces Moussa, the head of the
agriculture quarantine authority and the man who strictly
applied the zero-tolerance policy. Ibrahim Imbaby replaces him.
March 7, 2016: Egypt's agriculture ministry says it has
assigned an expert from the Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) of the United Nations to conduct a risk assessment on
ergot in order to bring the country's laws into harmony.
March 8, 2016: Imbaby says he will, like his predecessor,
apply a zero-tolerance policy until a new law is passed.
July 4, 2016: A decree is passed by the agriculture ministry
allowing quarantine to accept 0.05 percent ergot.
July 13, 2016: The agriculture ministry reveals that an FAO
study concluded ergot is not a threat to Egyptian crops, but
says the decision can be amended if future studies indicate
Aug. 25, 2016: Egypt's supplies minister, Khaled Hanafi, who
had defended the 0.05 percent policy, resigns on the back of a
wheat corruption scandal.
Aug. 28, 2016: Egypt's agriculture ministry imposes a new
decree reinstating the total ban on ergot. The ministry cites a
locally conducted follow-up study that finds the fungus to be a
threat to Egyptian crops.
Aug. 31, 2016: GASC changes its tender specifications,
bringing them in line with quarantine's zero-tolerance policy on
ergot for the first time. Global suppliers stage a boycott and
GASC is forced to cancel a tender.
Sept. 5, 2016: Egypt's health ministry adopts a zero-ergot
stance, bringing all three ministries that oversee the policy in
line for the first time and making it harder for GASC to
Sept. 7-9, 2016: Egyptian inspectors reject a 63,000-tonne
Romanian wheat shipment at its port of origin for trace levels
of ergot even though the cargo had been contracted under the old
ergot rules. It is the first cargo rejected at its port of
Sept. 16, 2016: GASC cancels its second consecutive wheat
tender after failing to receive any offers and as a 60,000-tonne
Russian wheat shipment is rejected at Novorossiisk after weeks
Sept. 16, 2016: Russia says it will ban imports of fruit and
vegetables from Egypt from Sept. 22, apparently in retaliation
for held-up shipments of Russian wheat.
Sept. 19, 2016: GASC holds its third wheat tender under the
zero-ergot rules even as suppliers insist they will not make
offers. Traders speculate the failed tenders are a strategy for
GASC to convince the government to overturn the zero-tolerance
policy as grain reserves come under pressure.
(Reporting by Maha El Dahan and Eric Knecht; Editing by Dale