FILE PHOTO: Harvested wheat is seen on a field in Zeitz
INTERNATIONAL - A scorching hot, dry summer has ended five years of plenty in the many wheat- producing countries and drawn down the reserves of major exporters to their lowest level since 2007/08, when low grain stocks contributed to food riots across Africa and Asia.

Although global stocks are expected to hit an all-time high of 273 million tons at the start of the 2018/19 grain marketing season, according to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) estimates, the problem is nearly half of what it is in China, which is not likely to release any on to the global markets.

Experts predict that by the end of the season, the eight major exporters will be left with 20percent of world stocks - just 26 days of cover - down from one-third a decade ago.

The USDA estimates that China, which consumes 16percent of the world's wheat, will hold 46percent of its stocks at the beginning of the season, which starts around now, and more than half by the end.

The 126.8 million tons China is estimated to hold is up 135percent from 54 million five years earlier.

“People need to get rid of China stocks (in their calculations) if you do that it’s just exceptionally tight,” said Dan Basse, president of Ag- Resource in Chicago.

A repeat of the 2007/2008 crisis, which forced many countries to limit or ban exports, is unlikely in the absence of other drivers at the time, including $150 (R2151) per barrel of crude oil.

The recent three-year high for wheat prices of $5.93 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade pales in comparison to the high of $13.34 for half a bushel in February 2008.

Importers in North Africa also appear to be better placed, with higher stocks of their own.

“It could have an impact on food inflation but in North African countries they have a good crop this year, fortunately, so their reliance is not as big as in the past years,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao).

“I don't think we want to be alarmist in terms of consequences,” he added.

China started stockpiling wheat in 2006, setting a guaranteed floor price to ensure food security and stability.

At around $9.75 a bushel as of last week, Chinese prices are now so high that they cannot sell internationally without incurring a major loss.

Rabobank analyst Charles Clack said he expected China to continue to build stocks into next year, but in the long term it would look to reduce reserves by curbing domestic production, reducing imports or holding internal auctions.

“It will be a slow process and I wouldn't expect exports to come flying out soon,” he pointed out.

Government wheat reserves now total nearly 74 million tons, according to Shanghai JC Intelligence, most of it from 2014/2017 but a small amount as old as 2013.

Sylvia Shi, an analyst at JC Intelligence, said China would continue to import wheat that it cannot produce in sufficient volumes to help meet its growing appetite for high-protein varieties for products like bread and other baked products as diets become more Westernised.

The wheat crop in several of the world’s biggest exporters -Argentina, Australia, Canada, the EU, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and the US - has suffered this year.

A spring drought in the Black Sea bread baskets of Russia and Ukraine was swiftly followed by a summer heatwave in the EU. Dry weather now also threatens crops in another important exporter, Australia.

Evidence of the serious harm has grown as harvesting progresses.

Forecasts for the 28-member EU have repeatedly been cut, with Germany set for its lowest grain harvest in 24 years after crops wilted under the highest summer temperatures since records began in 1881.

Russia’s agriculture ministry held a meeting with grain traders on Friday to discuss export volumes.