One feature that has characterised global agricultural markets over the past few weeks is rising prices. The growing demand from China as the country rebuilds its pig herd, which was decimated by African swine fever, combined with dry weather conditions that adversely affected crops in Europe, have been the major price drivers.
The higher agricultural commodity prices are now visible in the FAO Global Food Price Index, which was up 5% year on year in September at 97.9 points. The grains subindex, which has underpinned the overall Global Food Price Index, was up 14%.
What’s more, with grain prices still at higher levels, we could see the Global Food Price Index remaining elevated in the coming months. On October 8, US maize, wheat and soya bean prices were up 25%, 32% and 21% year on year to $210, $274 and $439 a tonne respectively.
These price increases are largely a function of growing demand and the aforementioned weather concerns in parts of Europe, and not due to any major disruptions to global supply. The recent monthly update of the closely watched US department of agriculture (USDA) world agricultural supply and demand estimates report allays any potential market fears.
For example, the USDA forecasts 2020/2021 global wheat production at a record 773-million tonnes, up 1% year on year on the back of expected large harvests in Russia, Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan, among others.
Importantly, the increased global wheat volume bodes well for wheat-importing countries, such as SA. This also means the main wheat-producing countries have no reason to restrict exports in the coming months as they attempted to do at the start of the year amid fears over the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, prices will likely remain at higher levels as weather conditions in the northern hemisphere continue to threaten winter wheat sowing.
In more good news, the 2020/2021 global rice production is estimated at 501-million tonnes, up 1% year on year on the back of expected large harvests in key Asian producing countries.
Similar to wheat, SA takes a keen interest in the global rice production conditions as the country is a net importer of the commodity. The International Grains Council forecasts SA’s 2020 rice imports at 1.1-million tonnes, up 10% year on year. Global rice prices are, however, at levels higher than 2019, in part because of strong global demand across all grains driven by consumer stockpiling during lockdowns.
In the same vein, 2020/2021 global maize production is estimated at 1.16-billion tonnes, a 4% year-on-year increase, with Brazil, the US and Russia among the countries underpinning this large harvest.
In terms of oilseeds, the USDA forecasts 2020/2021 global soya bean production at 368-million tonnes, a 9% annual increase, boosted by improved yields across major soya bean producers in the Americas.
As with other agricultural commodities, the expected large soya bean harvest has not been reflected in prices, which are notably higher than the previous year, driven by growing demand from China.
Essentially, the higher global agricultural commodity prices we have witnessed in the previous months could remain with us for some time, at least as long as the demand from China remains solid. Already the global price increases have filtered into the SA market through higher domestic grain prices. This comes despite the country harvesting its second-largest maize harvest and third-largest soya bean harvest in history, and expecting the largest wheat harvest in a decade.
While this is positive for farmers as it improves their finances, the opposite is true for grain users such as livestock farmers and millers, and ultimately consumers. As things stand, the higher domestic grain prices are an upside risk to SA’s food price inflation, particularly into next year. But that said, I do not expect food price inflation for the year to exceed 5% year on year.
Written for and first appeared on Business Day, October 14, 2020.
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My aim in this morning’s blog post is to provide an update of South Africa’s grain trade data for the week of 18 September 2020. I will also share highlights from the International Grain Council monthly global grains update report.
SA grain trade data
South Africa exported 34 663 tonnes of maize in the week of 18 September 2020. About 37% to South Korea, and the rest to Southern Africa markets (primarily Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho). This placed South Africa’s 2020/21 total maize exports at 1.46 million tonnes, which equates to 54% of the seasonal export forecast (2.70 million tonnes). Yellow maize exports accounted for 75% of the volume already exported, with 25% being white maize. The leading markets thus far are Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea for yellow maize, and the Southern African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia), mainly for white maize.
In terms of wheat, South Africa is in a different position, a net importer as the country is not endowed with conducive climate to produce the crop. As such, South Africa imported 46 145 tonnes in the week of 18 September 2020, all from Russia. This placed South Africa’s 2019/20 wheat imports at 1.77 million tonnes, which equates to 98% of the seasonal import forecast (1.80 million tonnes). The 2019/20 marketing year ends this month. The leading suppliers of wheat to South Africa thus far include Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Latvia, amongst others.
Global grains production prospects for 2020/21
The International Grains Council (IGC) monthly report which came out on 24 September 2020, maintained a fairly optimistic picture, with the 2020/21 global grains harvest estimated at 2.23 billion tonnes, a 2% annual increase. This is mainly on the back of expected large maize, wheat, sorghum, rice and soybean harvests. This suggests that the crop damage caused by unfavourable weather conditions in various regions of the US and the EU has been compensated by crop increases in other countries.
To zoom in, IGC forecasts 2020/21 global maize harvest at 1.16 billion tonnes, up by 4% y/y. This increased harvest is expected to originate primarily from the US, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, and Brazil amongst others. In the case of wheat, the 2020/21 harvest is projected to increase just marginally by 0.2% y/y to a fresh high of 763 million tonnes. This is boosted by expected large yields in Russia, Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan, amongst other countries.
For rice, the IGC forecasts the 2020/21 global harvest at 504 million tonnes, which is down marginally from the previous month estimate, but up by 1% from the 2019/20 season. This is underpinned by an expected large harvest in Asia and the US. There is also optimism about soybeans, with the 2020/21 global harvest estimated at 373 million tonnes, roughly unchanged from the previous month and 10% higher than the 2019/20 season. The US, Brazil, Argentina, China, India and Paraguay are amongst the key drivers of the expected large harvest.
Essentially, the global grains market will be well supplied in the 2020/21 season. Still, the recent weather disruptions and changes in demand have led to price increases in recent weeks, which is not conducive for grain importing countries.
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This morning’s blog post is co-authored with fellow agricultural economist, Tinashe Kapuya. Our aim is to briefly reflect on the recent 2020/21 global grain and oilseed production forecasts from the United States Department of Agriculture and further draw implication for South Africa.
We have recently reflected on 2020/21 global grain and oilseed production estimates from the International Grain Council (IGC). These painted a positive picture of the supplies although there were a few minor downward revisions. We are now increasingly convinced that the recent unfavourable weather conditions in parts of Europe, Asia and even the US will not have a severe adverse effect on global production estimates. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its monthly update of World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report on 11 September 2020, which painted a somewhat similar picture of abundant supplies as the IGC.
The 2020/21 global maize harvest was revised down marginally by 1% from last month to 1.16 billion tonnes, primarily on expectations of lower yields in the US, Ukraine, EU and Russia, amongst others. Nonetheless, the total projected output is still 4% higher than in the previous season. These slight reductions in monthly production estimates, coupled with the growing demand for maize, specifically in China, have in the past couple of days supported global maize prices. Also, it is worth noting that it is only in the northern hemisphere where production has advanced. The planting is only commencing this month in parts of the southern hemisphere. This means the production estimates for the latter are tentative and much will depend on the weather conditions for the coming month.
The implications of this for South Africa have been through price transmission, as the uptick in global maize prices adds, to some extent, support to domestic maize prices, even though South Africa is generally a net exporter of maize. The USDA has also maintained a fairly positive outlook of 14.0 million tonnes for South Africa’s 2020/21 maize production, although this would be 13% lower than the 2019/20 harvest. This projection accounts for both commercial and non-commercial maize.
Admittedly, it is too early to know where the maize harvest will be in 2020/21 as the planting intentions data for the season will only be released next month. That said, 14.0 million tonnes harvest is plausible in an environment that might present above-normal rainfall, coupled with higher commodity prices to encourage increased planting. Moreover, the expected harvest is well above the 10-year average total maize production of 12.9 million tonnes in South Africa, and domestic annual usage of about 11.2 million tonnes.
In the case of wheat, the USDA is more optimistic than the IGC, having lifted its 2020/21 global production estimate by 1% from last month to 770 million tonnes (compared to 768 million tonnes of the IGC). This is primarily underpinned by prospects of a large harvest in Canada and India, amongst other countries. This new production estimate is now 1% higher than the 2019/20 season. The increase in the harvests of these countries will compensate for the expected slight crop declines in the US, EU, UK and Ukraine. The estimates of a slight uptick in global wheat production bode well for wheat-importing countries like South Africa, which could continue to enjoy relative contained prices in the medium term. As previously stated in our notes, over the past 10 years, South Africa has imported on average about 51% of its annual wheat consumption of about 3.1 million tonnes. The figure, could, however, decline somewhat in the 2020/21 season as the domestic wheat harvest is set to be the largest in a decade, estimated at 1.96 million tonnes.
The USDA is rather a bit more pessimistic than the IGC is on 2020/21 global rice production, which is estimated at 499 million tonnes, slightly lower than the previous month. This is 1% lower than the IGC estimate for the same season, while above the previous season’s harvest of 495 million tonnes. The USDA sees a notable decline in rice production mainly in Thailand, which also happens to be the key supplier of rice to South Africa. On average over the past five years, 65% of South Africa’s rice imports originated from Thailand. The other key supplier was India, whose 2020/21 harvest is set to increase marginally from the previous year. The IGC estimates South Africa’s 2020 rice imports at 1.1 million tonnes, up by 10% y/y.
In terms of soybeans, the USDA lowered its 2020/21 global production estimate only slightly by 0.2% from last month to 369 million tonnes. This downward revision was mainly in the US following an expectation of lower yields in states such as Iowa after the recent windstorms. With that said, this is still 10% higher than the previous season’s harvest. The prices, however, are not reflective of a year of an abundant harvest because of growing demand, specifically in China. This is a similar case as in maize. The price increases in soybean products such as soybean meal increase the cost of animal feed for importing countries such as South Africa. The country currently imports nearly half a million tonnes of soybean meal a year.
Overall, the USDA’s monthly report reinforces the view that the IGC had already painted, which is that there will be large supplies of grain and oilseed in the global market in 2020/21. The price increases of the past couple of weeks are not caused necessarily by fears of a decline in supply, rather the shifts in demand in markets such as China. These developments have implications for South Africa as briefly explained above, although the country is a net exporter of major grains such as maize and barley. For commodities where South Africa is a net importer, the implications are even more significant. Therefore, we continue to keep a close eye on these global developments.
Wandile Sihlobo is Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) and the author of Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity, and Agriculture. Dr Tinashe Kapuya is head of Value Chain analytics division at the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP).
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In this blog post, I will briefly reflect on South Africa’s recent weekly grain data releases and also on the upcoming 2020/21 production season, leaning on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data that was published on Friday evening.
SA weekly grain data
The producer deliveries data for the week of 04 September 2020 showed that roughly 83% of the expected maize crop of 15.5 million tonnes of 2019/20 season had been delivered to commercial silos, and the quality of the crop is mainly good. Also, a greater share of the 2019/20 soybean and sunflower seed crop had already been delivered to commercial silos. This is clear from the producer deliveries data, which have slowed in recent weeks, while the sum nearly equals the expected harvest in both crops. In the coming months, I will change the focus from summer crops to winter crops when its harvest begins. This will probably be towards the end of the year, and by then, the focus on summer crops will be on the upcoming 2020/21 production season, and on that crop conditions, not producer deliveries.
However, the weekly grain trade data will remain key for both maize and wheat throughout the year. I will touch on oilseeds and other small grain trade data around month ends, which is when the data is usually released by the South African Information Services.
South Africa exported 46 092 tonnes of maize in the week of 04 September 2020. About 51% of this went to Vietnam and the rest to South Korea and Southern Africa markets (primarily Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho). This placed South Africa’s 2020/21 total maize exports at 1.31 million tonnes, which equates to 49% of the seasonal export forecast (2.7 million tonnes). The leading markets thus far are the Southern African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia), mainly for white maize, and Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea for yellow maize. About 75% of all maize exports thus far is yellow maize, with 25% being white maize.
Moreover, South Africa is a net importer of wheat and brought in 49 457 tonnes from Russia in the week of 04 September 2020. This placed South Africa’s 2019/20 wheat imports at 1.65 million tonnes, which equates to 92% of the seasonal import forecast (1.80 million tonnes). The 2019/20 marketing year ends this month. The leading suppliers of wheat to South Africa thus far include Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Latvia, amongst others.
2020/21 maize production season
The USDA has painted a fairly positive outlook of 14.0 million tonnes for South Africa’s 2020/21 maize production, although this would be 13% lower than the 2019/20 harvest. This projection accounts for both commercial and non-commercial maize. Admittedly, it is too early to know where the maize harvest will be in 2020/21 as the planting intentions data for the season will only be released on 28 October 2020. That said, the projected 14.0 million tonnes is plausible in an environment that might present above- normal rainfall, coupled with higher commodity prices to encourage increased planting. Moreover, this is well above the 10-year average total maize production of 12.9 million tonnes in South Africa, and domestic annual usage of about 11.2 million tonnes.
This means, a crop of this size would enable South Africa to remain a net exporter of maize in 2021/22 marketing year, which will begin in May 2021. For domestic consumers, this would mean that we are in for a period of prolonged relatively lower food price inflation.
Exhibit 1 below illustrates South Africa’s maize optimal planting dates. In the recent past, the country hasn’t kept up with this schedule because of delayed rainfall. But the South African Weather Service has recently indicated that the country could receive rainfall from this month, which would then enable planting from the traditional dates.
Exhibit 1: South Africa’s maize optimal planting dates
Source: Grain SA, Agbiz Research
 Available on the USDA’s website.
 The view of the South African Weather Service is available here.
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This essay first appeared on Business Day, August 13, 2020
Tempus fugit (time flies) is an apt phrase to describe developments in the global agricultural market. It feels like just the other day when I wrote an update note on global grain conditions following the release of the monthly world agricultural supply and demand estimates report from the US department of agriculture. On August 12, the department released its update for August, which made minor yet mixed adjustments from the previous month’s estimates.
In a positive development for these uncertain times, the 2020/2021 global maize production estimate was lifted 1% to 1.17-billion tonnes from the July estimate, which is also 5% higher than 2019/2020 production. The upward revisions were mainly on the US and Ukraine’s maize production estimates. In the case of Ukraine there is a consensus in the market that the heatwave that raised concerns in the past few months might have caused lower-than-expected damage, hence the level of optimism about the harvest.
However, there are doubts about the size of the US maize harvest as traders believe the unfavourable weather conditions of the past few weeks might have caused damage to the crop. This is something we will keep an eye on, and the US department of agriculture numbers for October should account for such potential damage. Be that as it may, my sense looking at all the recent data releases — from the US and the International Grains Council (IGC) — is that the world will have abundant maize supplies in the 2020/2021 season.
This, of course, is a northern hemisphere story. The southern hemisphere’s maize plantings will only start around October, but the medium-term weather forecasts point to a potentially good season, which is also supportive of the optimistic view coming out of the US.
Moreover, the US has lifted its estimate for 2020/2021 global soybean production by 2% from July’s estimate to 370-million tonnes — a 10% annual uptick.
This is supported by prospects of a large crop in the US and South America. Brazil has made large shipments to China in recent months, which should incentivise farmers to increase plantings in the 2020/2021 season to serve ever-growing Chinese demand. This projection is supported by solid growth in feed demand as China recovers from African swine fever and expands its poultry industry.
On the negative side, in terms of wheat, the US department of agriculture has trimmed its estimate for 2020/2021 global production by 0.4% from July to 766-million tonnes. The downward revision was mainly to the EU’s estimate, which is unsurprising as that region has experienced dryness in the past couple of weeks. Nevertheless, this is 0.3% higher than the previous season’s record global wheat production. This also underscores the aforementioned optimism around global grain supplies.
This is comforting news for countries, such as SA, that are dependent on imports. SA imports roughly half its annual wheat consumption. Increased production means global prices could soften or remain flat, which is beneficial to local consumers. Most importantly, this also means the key wheat-producing countries won’t need to restrict exports during the pandemic, as they attempted to do at the start of the year.
The 2020/2021 global rice production estimate was also cut by 1% from July’s estimate to 500-million tonnes, primarily on the back of expected lower yields in parts of the US, Thailand and Vietnam. The current estimate, however, is still something to celebrate; it is up 1% from the 2019/2020 season and promises to boost rice stock levels.
Similar to wheat, South Africans take a keen interest in the global rice production conditions as the country is a net importer to augment domestic consumption. The IGC currently estimates SA’s 2020 rice imports to be 1.10-million tonnes, up 10% year on year. Hence a forecast year of relatively large global rice supplies bodes well for importers such as SA.
It also signals that there won’t be a need for protectionist policies by major producers, even in the case of the rice trade — earlier in the year, Vietnam and Cambodia were among the countries that were jittery and attempted to place protectionist trade policies on rice, which were later reversed.
In a nutshell, the US department of agriculture revisions in August 2020 were mixed with downward revisions in some crops and upward in others. But the big picture is that all expected harvests will be larger than the 2019/2020 season, which means the world will be awash with grains. This should keep global food price inflation in check in the medium term.
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The global grains environment has changed somewhat from the optimistic picture of a few weeks ago. The increased dryness in parts of Europe and the US is weighing on global crop production, specifically maize and wheat, and this has raised the prospects for downward revision of yields estimates. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was the first of major institutions at the start of this month to lower its estimates for US maize and wheat production. This was followed by the EU’s production estimates, primarily on the back of concerns about yield prospects.
To zoom into the details, the downward revision of US maize production resulted in a 2% decline in the 2020/21 global maize production from June estimates to 1.16 billion tonnes. Nevertheless, this is still 4% higher than the previous season, supported by expected large production in South America, Europe and parts of Asia.
The crop is currently at its growing stages in the northern hemisphere which means the weather is an important factor to monitor in the coming weeks and months since it will continue to influence crop conditions. In the southern hemisphere, however, the 2020/21 maize season’s planting will only begin around October.
The long-term weather forecasts, specifically for South Africa, generally look favourable which supports the view for a possible, good crop even in southern hemisphere countries that are yet to plant the 2020/21 crop. Here at home, the focus is currently on the 2019/20 maize crop which is still at harvest stages. For example, in the week of 17 July 2020, about 52% of the expected commercial harvest of 15.5 million tonnes had already been delivered to commercial silos across South Africa.
In terms of wheat, the USDA forecasts the 2020/21 global wheat harvest at 769 million tonnes, which is marginally lower than the previous month’s estimate because of the aforementioned weather challenges in parts of EU and the US. This, however, is still 1% higher than the previous season.
SA stands to benefit
Wheat-importing countries like South Africa stand to benefit from large global supplies. South Africa imports roughly 50% of its annual wheat consumption. In the 2019/20 marketing year, which ends on 30 September, imports are estimated at 1.8 million tonnes. About 85% of this has already landed in the South African shores. The import volume requirements for the 2020/21 marketing year which starts on the first of October 2020, will be clearer once we have a reliable estimate of the size of the harvest of the crop which is currently underway. It is this marketing year that consumers will benefit from both cost and availability perspective from the expected decent global wheat harvest.
Other major grains that are worth monitoring, but were not affected by the recent downward revisions on the back of weather concerns, are rice and soybeans. In the case of rice, the USDA has maintained its production forecast at a record 502 million tonnes, up 1% y/y on the back of an expected large crop in Asia. Under this production estimate, global rice stocks could also lift by 2% y/y to 185 million tonnes. This would add bearish pressure on prices and, in turn, be beneficial to import countries like South Africa, which is set to import 1.1 million tonnes in 2020 (up 10% y/y).
The 2020/21 global soybean production was also left roughly unchanged from last month at 363 million tonnes, which is up 8% y/y. This is on the back of an expected recovery in production in the US, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, amongst others.
Influence on prices
Positively for consumers, the influence of these large global grains supplies is starting to reflect on prices which have somewhat softened over the past couple of weeks compared to last year. This is evident on the FAO global grains index which averaged 86.6 points in June, down by 2% y/y.
In a nutshell, the dryness in parts of Europe and the US is increasingly becoming a concern and has led to a downward revision of crop prospects. But this was fortunately compensated by expected large harvests in other regions, hence on balance, the expected harvest is still higher than the 2019/20 production season with prices somewhat softening as a result of this expected harvest. With that said, the weather conditions for the coming months in Europe, the US and other major grains producing regions are crucial as that will influence the size of the crop the world end up with in 2020/21 production season.
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The locusts which emerged in East Africa towards the end of last year remain a serious challenge for the agricultural sector. This is specifically the case in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, according to reports from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Over half a million hectares across these countries have been affected by locusts, and thus destroying crops and pastures. Hence, it is unsurprising that there are rising fears of potential food shortage if the spread of the locusts is not controlled.
These swarms of locusts caught the region by surprise as they are not a normal occurrence, with the United Nations noting that a spread this big was last seen 70 years ago. The climatic conditions are, in part, a contributor to the spread of the locusts in this region. Various reports suggest that the locusts thrive in periods after heavy rains, which is precisely the situation in parts of East Africa. This also comes at a challenging time when the financial resources to fight the spread of the locusts are limited as funds are diverted to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Hence, there is the risk that if the spread is not controlled, the locusts could lay eggs which might lead to an even larger swarm of locusts in the next season, further negatively affecting the agricultural sector and livelihoods of those mainly dependent on the sector. The FAO estimates that roughly US$302 million is required to control the locust spread in the East Africa region.
While this swarm of locusts is a worry for the entire region, the major grain-consuming countries in this region, Kenya and Ethiopia, face slightly different prospects. Consider Ethiopia’s 2020 maize production, which is estimated at a record of 8.6 million tonnes, up by 1% y/y, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means the country’s maize fields have thus far not been as hard hit by the locusts as other countries in the region. Most importantly, this will cover the domestic annual consumption needs.
By comparison, the USDA forecasts Kenya’s 2020 maize production at 3.4 million tonnes, down by 11% y/y. The decline, however, is not mainly caused by the locusts, rather expectations of poor yields on the back of unfavourable weather conditions at the start of the season. With Kenya’s annual maize consumption at about 4.7 million tonnes, the aforementioned production estimate means the country could require to import about 1.3 million tonnes within the 2020/21 marketing year.
For countries like Kenya, the locusts are in fact, affecting the sector in a year that staple grain conditions were not favourable. This raises the possibility that if there isn’t a strict control through applications of pesticides by spraying and other techniques, we could as well see reports of crop damages and increased import needs.
Fortunately, this year, the Southern Africa region has large maize supplies which should help fill the shortage in Kenya and other African countries which could experience a maize shortfall. As I have previously pointed out in Business Day, South Africa and Zambia could emerge as key maize suppliers to the Southern and East Africa region in the 2020/21 marketing year. Both countries are expecting their second-largest maize harvests on record within the 2019/20 production season (which corresponds with the 2020/21 marketing year).
In the case of South Africa, the expected harvest is 15.5 million tonnes, against domestic consumption of roughly 11.0 million tonnes. Whereas, Zambia‘s 2019/20 maize harvest is estimated at 3.4 million tonnes against domestic maize consumption of 2.2 million tonnes. This means South Africa could have at least 2.7 million tonnes of maize for export markets within the 2020/21 season, which is up 89% y/y, while, Zambia could have a million tonnes of maize for exports, up from 100 000 tonnes in the previous year.
Nevertheless, the key focus for the East Africa region will have to be finding financial resources to acquire all required pesticides, and various spraying equipment needed to control the spread of the locusts. This should be a priority to mitigate any potential breeding the locusts could do, which could lead to yet another outbreak next year. On a brighter side, the available maize supplies in South Africa and Zambia will help cushion the expected shortfall in the near term.
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