Egypt’s ban on a fungus naturally found in wheat is unrealistic and will give the biggest buyer of the grain fewer supply options, industry representatives and researchers say.
Global standards allow for the equivalent of one grain in every 2,000 to be infected with ergot, a fungus known since ancient times for inducing hallucinations or seizures with long exposure. That didn’t stop Egypt halting a French cargo, with Agriculture Ministry spokesman Eid Hawash saying the shipment didn’t meet a policy of zero tolerance.
Russia, the biggest shipper to Egypt this season, probably won’t be able to guarantee zero contamination, said Andrey Sizov Jr., managing director of Russian agricultural researcher SovEcon. Russia follows international standards allowing for 0.05 percent ergot, he said.
“The problem with zero tolerance is that it is so absolute and can be a bit arbitrary,” said Jay O’Neill, senior agricultural economist for the International Grains Program at Kansas State University. “It could be possible to test numerous times for ergot and not find it and then test the next cargo and find it.”
Egypt spends billions of dollars on grain a year for a subsidized bread program to ensure its people can afford the staple food. Even its grain buyer, General Authority for Supply Commodities, has a 0.05 percent tolerance for ergot. Global food standards are agreed in the Codex Alimentarius, of which the country is a member. The voluntary codex is recognized by the World Trade Organization as a reference for resolving trade disputes.
Egypt has some older history with the fungus, too. A papyrus dating from 550 BC describes mixing ergot with oil and honey as a preparation to promote hair growth, according to an article in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.
Now, industry figures from Ukraine to Canada are voicing concern that a complete ban on ergot would disrupt deliveries.
Traders consider wheat without ergot impossible to find in Ukraine, said Liza Malyshko, an analyst at UkrAgroConsult. While grain handlers in Canada use cleaning equipment to remove ergot, the fungus can be present in many sizes and very difficult to remove entirely, said Louise Worster, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Grain Commission.
Certifying no ergot in a wheat cargo as big as 60,000 metric tons isn’t possible, according to Xavier Reboud, a research director at France’s agronomy-research institute INRA, who has studied the fungus. While ergot is relatively rare in Australian grain, it’s considered a constant threat, according to AWB, a unit of Cargill Australia.
“It is practically impossible to guarantee 100 percent ergot-free grain,” said Emmanuel Byamukama, assistant professor and plant pathologist at South Dakota State University. “That means that every gram of grain is physically examined for the ergot bodies.”
Egypt recently approved the first shipments of the grain from Argentina in more than three years, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. The Latin American nation is exporting more grains after President Mauricio Macri scrapped trade restrictions.
The fungus is very rarely found in Argentina, according to Lisardo Gonzalez, wheat seed director at Buck Semillas SA. “We can’t say Argentina is ergot free but for sure we can say we haven’t seen ergot in our wheat crops for many, many years," Gonzalez said.
While exporters could offer Egypt higher-quality wheat more likely to pass inspection, the country would have to pay much higher prices than it does now, according to O’Neill.
“Egypt is making things difficult and more risky for suppliers and when that happens, the price always goes up,” he said. “Egypt is going to quickly find that they are putting themselves in a difficult situation with fewer sellers and higher prices.”