By Gus Trompiz and Giancarlo Navach
PARIS/MILAN (Reuters) - Italian pasta makers are fearful of a substantial supply squeeze in the coming months after this summer's durum wheat price shock, as the market runs out of ways to offset a dire harvest in top exporter Canada.
Extreme heat and drought this year in the North American country, which usually accounts for about two-thirds of global durum trade, are expected to cut output there by about 3 million tonnes to nearly 50% below 2020 levels.
That has sent durum quotations to 13-year highs, stoking concerns about food inflation at a time when many economies are struggling to recover from COVID-19.
An index of food prices from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is at a 10-year high, with the cost of bread also climbing as European wheat prices hit a 13-year peak this month.
With forecasts for Italy's domestic durum crop, which typically covers most of pasta makers' needs, also recently cut, the country's food producers are particularly exposed to turmoil in the wider market for the niche wheat variety.
Some Italian processors risk being caught short when the local crop runs out and may see production stoppages in the coming months, Strategie Grains analyst Severine Omnes-Maisons said.
"In terms of prices and scarcity of durum, the worst is perhaps still to come."
Canada's output wilted just as world durum stocks were already at a six-year low, partly due to at-home hoarding of pasta during pandemic lockdowns.
Several crops have seen prices jump this year due to harvest setbacks and mounting supply chain costs, but tensions in durum have been particularly intense, with export prices almost doubling since June.
Italy's durum crop had been expected to surpass 2020 levels this year, but the European Commission in October cut its estimate to 3.7 million tonnes from 4.3 million, leaving pasta makers fretting about availability in the first half of 2022.
"It will be more dramatic than it is now because at the moment we can find domestic wheat," said Vincenzo Divella, chief executive of the Divella pasta brand. "The situation with durum wheat is very serious."
Supply from this year's harvests may be even lower than anticipated. Unfavourable local crop reports in Canada suggest its official durum production estimate may be cut again in December, Omnes-Maisons says.
"Durum presents the greatest challenge in terms of balancing global import requirements with global export availability," Rhyl Doyle, director of export trading at Paterson Grain in Winnipeg, said.
Buyers have adjusted to some extent with non-Canadian supply. Australia has become the EU's second-largest durum supplier this season after Canada, while Mexico was expected to fill most of a large import purchase by Algeria in September.
Like Canada, the United States is set to see production drop by about half this year after suffering similar torrid weather since spring. France's rain-hit harvest meanwhile has curbed European supply.
That has led some to blame weather shifts for upsetting a balance of moderately warm and dry growing conditions suited to producing the hard, high-protein wheat variety.
"The increase in the price of durum wheat is a symptom of climate change," said Alberto Cartasegna, chief executive of Miscusi, which has a dozen restaurants in Italy.
PAYING MORE FOR STAPLES
Adjusting to low stocks will partly come from paying more for durum-based staples and switching to less costly common wheat.
Price rises are not expected to dampen pasta demand in wealthy European countries - where pasta is required to be made from durum - despite double-digit percentage increases by some manufacturers that are being passed on partly to shoppers.
But consumption patterns may shift more in emerging economies.
North African households face an increase of around a quarter in the price of durum-based semolina bread, which is expected to reinforce the prevalence of soft wheat bread.
"We have no choice but to increase prices to cover costs," Abdelaziz Bouchireb, an Algerian baker, said of semolina bread.
Turkey, a major pasta exporter, earlier this year relaxed rules to increase the maximum share of common wheat allowed in pasta exports from 30% to 100% in response to dwindling durum supply.
Reduced demand in Turkey and North Africa is expected to account for the bulk of a 6% drop in global food use of durum in the 2021/22 season compared with pre-pandemic levels, Strategie Grains forecasts.
The International Grains Council projects that worldwide durum demand will hit a 19-year low in that period. Nevertheless it sees end-season durum stocks at a 14-year low, suggesting a tightrope for the market before next year's harvests.
Even in wealthy economies, households may feel the pinch.
Market data specialist Nielsen says supermarket prices of budget pasta brands - those most dependent on raw material costs - rose nearly 20% year-on-year in France in October, which could augur significant across-the-board increases to come.
In the United States, stores are still stocking products made with last year's durum, so the impact of tighter supplies has not reached the end of the supply chain, said Jeffrey McPike, a U.S.-based trader and consultant with McWheat Trading Inc.
"It will," he warned.
(This story corrects first name of Divella CEO in paragraph 11)
(Reporting by Gus Trompiz in Paris, Giancarlo Navach in Milan, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat, Can Sezer in Istanbul, Nigel Hunt in London, Julie Ingwersen in Chicago and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Veronica Brown and Jan Harvey)