Moroccan food exports fly into European farmers' storm

The production and export of food are economically important for both Morocco and its customers, both in Europe and Africa. Yet not everyone is pleased, as France's president found out this week.

A farmer pours industrial honey during a protest to denounce their conditions and the European agricultural policy, on the Castellana avenue in Madrid, on February 26, 2024.
A farmer pours industrial honey during a protest to denounce their conditions and the European agricultural policy, on the Castellana avenue in Madrid, on February 26, 2024.

Moroccan food exports fly into European farmers' storm

When farmers protest, they tend to get noticed, not least because they often do so in big-honking tractors.

At the International Agricultural Show in Paris this week, there were fewer tractors, but still some noticeable farmers’ protests, timed to coincide with the appearance of French President Emmanuel Macron, who went to open the exhibition.

Across Europe, farmers are angry. This is due to a confluence of factors. The forced diversion of Ukrainian wheat through countries like Poland since 2022 did not help, given its impact on local food prices. Now, the worry is about free trade.

As Macron discovered, the Paris Show quickly became a platform for internal French political and economic conflicts over the issue. Unlike some politicians, European producers are generally against liberalising food markets.

The effect is particularly pronounced because far-right political parties — who excel at fear-mongering — are whispering in farmers’ ears across Europe.

The enemy? Cheap imports, including from North Africa. The timing? There are European elections this summer, and the populists want to make gains.

As the French president’s personal security force had to create a corridor for his swift exit to the sound of whistles, the cranking up of the European farmers’ revolution could almost be heard.

French President Emmanuel Macron heard from angry farmers at an agricultural show in Paris this week.

Morocco and Europe

Moroccan Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Development, Water, and Forests Mohamed Siddiqi was in town to sign a cooperation agreement with the French. Their focus was on agricultural research and fertilisers.

Siddiqi knows that Moroccan trucks carrying export produce such as tomatoes, oranges, potatoes, olives, and olive oil have faced sabotage on several European routes in recent months.

European farmers, egged on by their unions, see themselves as fighting a "food war" against overseas food imports, which they blame for diminishing prices and exacerbating hardships at home. Moroccan trucks are an easy target.

Siddiqi arrived just days after French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné flew into Rabat.

That visit hit the headlines after Séjourné hinted that France may recognise Morocco's claim to sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region.

For diplomats, all the signs were positive. For Europe's farmers, however, they were anything but. Market liberalisation hurts them. Specifically, they blame imports from Morocco, Ukraine, and South America.

European producers are against liberalising food markets, and far-right parties are whispering in farmers' ears ahead of elections.

Europe's angry farmers

In Warsaw, farmers have stopped trucks carrying Ukrainian wheat destined for North Africa despite Poland's government staunchly opposing Russia's invasion and supporting Ukraine for most of the past two years.

Under the new government of Donald Tusk, Poland continues to ramp up its military expenditure, even at the expense of ratifying new European budget rules that restrict fiscal deficits to 3%.

Just as Ukrainian produce has been held up in Poland, Moroccan produce has been held up in France, while Spanish farmers have damaged Moroccan trucks as the convoys made their way to Catalonia.

It was not lost on the Moroccans that this occurred while Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was visiting Rabat to secure work contracts for Spanish companies valued at $45bn, as reported by media in Madrid.

It may be that European farmers are angrier with their own governments than they are towards their non-European counterparts who, like them, are ultimately just trying to earn a living from the land.

Yet the issue is being used. For instance, the far-right opposition Vox party in Spain urged the suspension of the agricultural trade deal with Morocco, arguing that it adversely impacts local producers and small-scale farmers.

In a swift and terse response, Spanish Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Luis Planas Puchades said agricultural trade relations with Morocco "do not impact the conditions of Spanish farmers".

Trucks of tomatoes from Morocco were prevented from passing while Spanish farmers protested on a highway linking Spain and France on 27 February 2024.

He refuted allegations by Spanish and European agricultural associations that Moroccan imports failed to meet European phytosanitary regulations and posed a threat to consumers, saying tests in border control laboratories proved otherwise.

Morocco's response

A Moroccan government source told Al Majalla that all this "ultimately boils down to commercial competition", adding that Europe's farmers were "struggling to deliver a high-quality product at a competitive price".

They said Moroccan agricultural exports to Canada, the United States, and Britain need to surpass the quality control measures of the European Union.

It is a difficult moment. The Moroccan Association of Exporters (ASMEX) is suing the truck saboteurs, while the Confederation of Agriculture and Rural Development of Morocco has filed a commercial complaint in European courts.

In some ways, 55 years into what has been a fruitful partnership, it has reached a crossroads. Since 1969, Morocco has been the primary foreign supplier of foodstuffs to the European market.

That agreement has undergone several renewals and revisions as the European Union has changed. The most recent, sanctioned in July 2019, was ratified by a substantial majority in the European Parliament.

The deal outlines trade privileges with a view to fostering a gradual liberalisation of agricultural and food exchanges. Notably, it also facilitates a 55% reduction in tariffs on most agricultural and fishing products imported from Morocco.

European farmers are angrier with their own governments than they are towards their non-European counterparts who, like them, are just trying to live from the land.

Rabat's rich pickings

Agriculture accounts for around 14% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), so this is important for Rabat. Morocco produces many products, from vegetables to lemons, avocados to legumes, spices to fresh fish and frozen seafood.

Its government actively promotes the Moroccan brand internationally, including at agriculture fairs, advocating for the quality and variety of Moroccan foods and flavours. About half of what Morocco produces is exported to Europe.

As well as contributing to the country's GDP, agriculture employs around four million Moroccans, but the sector faces challenges, not least drought.

Remarkably, Morocco's fruit and vegetables have shown resilience in the harsh climatic conditions of recent years, growing in fields fed by pivot irrigation systems.

Morocco's foremost export destinations in the European Union include Spain (€8bn in exports, as of 2022), France (€7.8bn), and Italy (€2bn).

According to the trade website East Fruit, Morocco's agricultural exports to the UK were much less, around $450mn, for the first nine months of 2023, yet these have increased since Brexit and a subsequent UK-Morocco trade deal signed in 2019.

Food (in)security

To grow the sector, Morocco is expanding its agricultural exports to other markets, including Eastern Europe and North America.

This is in part because several years of global disruption caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have put food on the world's geopolitical agenda.

An inspector surveys the damage at a grain port facility after a reported attack by Russian military drones in, Izmail, Odesa region, Ukraine August 2, 2023

More recently, the withdrawal of food from Gaza by Israel has been used as a means of collective punishment against more than two million people. After five months, provisions are empty, and Palestinians are now suffering from starvation.

With major powers actively safeguarding their food sovereignty in anticipation of potential conflicts, there is a reluctance to allow emerging nations to alter the dynamics of food support and international agricultural production.

Given Morocco's historical roots as an agricultural nation and its expertise in fertiliser extraction from phosphates, its role and competition with other European nations present a notable challenge, signalling a potential shift in the global food system.

Algeria and Mauritania

Algeria (to Morocco's east) is quietly applying pressure on Mauritania (to Morocco's south) to impede the growth of Moroccan agricultural trade in African markets, especially to the Sahel countries.

This comes partly from the tension between Algeria and Morocco, which has been exacerbated since Rabat started building new land routes across the Sahara to link several landlocked countries to the Atlantic via the disputed Western Sahara region.

If successful, this could position Morocco as a major supplier to the sub-Saharan African market. Food destined for sub-Saharan Africa worth around $300mn already comes in via Guerguerat, a land port in Western Sahara.

Mauritanian minister Nani Ould Chrougha says his government will not reconsider the tax increase imposed on Moroccan agricultural imports at the end of last year.

He added that Mauritania did not need any imported fruit or vegetables for Ramadan.

However, the Mauritanian Consumer Protection Forum said this was likely to increase food prices, negatively impacting purchasing power, which is already strained by inflation and monopolies.

Given Morocco's history and expertise in agriculture, it has emerged as a chief competitor to Europe, signalling a potential shift in the global food system.

Home vs abroad

Therefore, there are ongoing concerns about Morocco's growing role as a food supplier in Europe and Africa. For Rabat, however, these challenges are partly a consequence of its agricultural production and export success.

Moroccans are currently debating how to divide the bounty and whether to prioritise domestic or foreign markets, given the strategic significance of the latter.

The recent drop in exports led to a drop in agricultural and food prices within Morocco itself, which helped dampen inflation.

In January 2024, it was down for the fifth straight month to 2.3% from 3.4% the month before. As a result, interest rates may soon come down, too. This all helps cash-strapped Moroccans as they approach Ramadan and the summer.

Yet Moroccans who demand more of their nation's produce know that the money they earn from agricultural exports helps pay for the imports they need.

It also gives the country more clout in an increasingly food-insecure world.

Food for thought...

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