By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - Wheat production in sub-Saharan Africa is at only 10 to 25 percent of its potential and nations can easily grow more to limit hunger, price shocks and political instability, a study showed on Tuesday.
The report, examining environmental conditions of 12 nations from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, said that farmers south of the Sahara grew only 44 percent of the wheat consumed locally, meaning dependence on international markets prone to price spikes.
"Sub-Saharan Africa has extensive areas of land that are suitable for profitably producing wheat under rain-fed conditions," according to the study by the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
It said countries in the region were producing only between 10 and 25 percent of the amounts that the Center's research suggested was "biologically possible and economically profitable" with a net return of $200 per hectare (2.5 acres).
The 89-page study, issued at a wheat conference in Ethiopia, said it aimed to identify ways to raise wheat production as "a hedge against food insecurity, political instability and price shocks."
"Wheat is not an African crop, it is not a tropical crop (but) many governments want to produce wheat locally instead of paying for imports," Hans-Joachim Braun, director of the Center's global wheat program, told Reuters by telephone.
The report estimated that African nations would spend about $12 billion to import 40 million metric tons of wheat in 2012, particularly for fast-growing cities. More wheat should not be grown at the expense of other more viable crops, Braun said.
Braun said wheat was already an established crop in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa but could easily expand to highland areas in other sub-Saharan nations. "Wheat cannot be produced in tropical lowlands," he added.
Twelve nations in sub-Saharan Africa produced almost six million metric tons of wheat a year in the period 2006-08, the study showed.
And wheat consumption was rising fast. A rise in incomes and a shift to cities from the countryside also meant a shift in diets towards wheat and rice, away from crops including maize, sorghum, sweet potato, cassava or yams.
The study suggested that, with investments including in fertilizers, wheat yields would be highest in the highlands of countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda.
Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe were least suited to wheat in rain-fed areas, it said. Zimbabwe, however, is one of the most productive of the wheat-growing nations in Africa but depends heavily on irrigation.
"If Africa does not push for wheat self-sufficiency, it could face more hunger, instability and even political violence, as bread riots in North Africa showed in recent years," Bekele Shiferaw, a lead author of the study, said in a statement.
In 2008, Zambia and Rwanda escaped sharp rises in wheat prices on global markets thanks to domestic production, the study said.
Braun said it was hard to say when African nations might reach self-sufficiency in wheat if they tried.
"The biological potential is there. But you also need access to markets. The big issue is the road infrastructure. It doesn't help very much if the farm is far from the cities," he said.
(Reporting By Alister Doyle; editing by Keiron Henderson)