Egypt’s hunger for Australian faba beans has helped the niche market grain become one of the country’s fastest growing pulse exports.

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Egypt’s hunger for Australian faba beans has helped the niche market grain become one of the country’s fastest growing pulse exports.

By Charlie Higgins

If you ever find yourself wandering the streets of Cairo, don’t be offended by the countless street vendors yelling “foooooooool!” They’re selling Egypt’s most popular breakfast food, ful medames, a dish of mashed faba beans flavored with garlic, lemon, and cumin typically served with eggs and pita bread.

Faba beans, or ful, are a staple of Egyptian cuisine and have been cultivated in the region since ancient times. Ful medames is the most popular way of eating faba beans, but there are literally thousands of recipes and variations used by Egyptians across all social and economic classes. Faba beans are to Egypt what black beans are to Brazil.

With a population of 84.3 million and growing about 2% annually, Egypt has a lot of mouths to feed. Though faba beans are produced domestically, the country must import large volumes to meet the growing demand for its second most important staple food.

For Australia’s pulse industry, Egypt’s faba bean fever has created a lucrative opportunity with demand that continues to grow. Between November 2012 and February 2013, Australia exported 153,988 metric tons of fabas to Egypt, representing nearly 70% of its entire export volume. Though the country lost some of its market share to France and the UK after a national drought in 2002, Australian growers continue to innovate and improve the quality and reliability of their fabas.

The Dawn of Australian Faba

Faba and broad beans (a larger faba variety with lower production) first became significant pulse crops in Australia during the mid 1980s and reached their heyday a decade later. Between the 1920s and 1970s, growers had experimented with a few Tic or “horse” beans using poorly adapted European varieties, but the results were mediocre at best. The first Australian and well-adapted faba bean variety, Fiord, was released in 1980, sparking interest in the national pulse-growing community.

Since then, faba bean production has grown steadily in Australia. Individual states have experienced ups and downs due to disease control and climate issues, but most have increased their production consistently since 1995. Australia saw peak production levels in 2000, with national acreage reaching 206,000 hectares. However, major drought between 2006 and 2008 left a significant impact that allowed France and the UK to obtain greater shares of the Egyptian market.

Despite setbacks, Australia’s faba bean industry remains strong and is now seeing renewed interest thanks to higher prices and solid average yields. Fabas are well suited to a range of soil types and climates, and are currently grown in parts of Western and Southern Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

“In all Australian States, beans have historically been considered too difficult to grow because of disease problems. With variable yields and returns, even total crop losses, they had earned a reputation as ‘fraud’ or ‘failure’ beans,” says Wayne Hawthorne, Industry Development Manager for Pulse Australia.

“Now, 30 odd years after the first major crop losses, faba beans are considered a valuable and profitable pulse crop that suits broad acre cropping rotations. With new variety releases, a better understanding of how to manage diseases, better agronomic advice and improved marketing and infrastructure, there is considerable confidence in growing faba and broad beans, and production is set to expand even further.”

Meeting Egypt’s Demand

Egypt imports approximately 48% of all the faba and broad beans traded internationally. The top four importing countries—Egypt, Italy, Sudan and Spain—comprise 74% of the entire import market for fabas. Australia has remained competitive in this industry and currently exports about 70% of its fabas to Egypt. Hawthorne says several factors have enabled this lucrative trading relationship.

“The release of the new faba bean variety Fiesta VF in 1998 assisted the Australian faba bean industry greatly as this was a preferred faba bean product in the Egyptian markets because of its larger, more uniform grain size and light color.”

“The harmonization of product specifications negotiated by Pulse Australia and the Egyptian Government were ratified in April 2002, and this greatly facilitated trade in beans and lentils between the two countries. Australian national export standards for faba and broad beans were set based on this harmonization and receival standards set to achieve those exportable grades,” Hawthorne said.

Competition with France and the UK remains a key challenge for Australia’s faba bean industry, though Hawthorne says the country has a few advantages that make up for its susceptibility to drought.

“Recent faba bean varieties released in UK and France are targeting the Egyptian market for quality and size in the same way as Australian breeders do. Australia has the advantage of clean and dry beans at harvest and the absence of bruchids, a pest of European beans and a major quality issue in the Egyptian market,” Hawthorne explained.

The Future of Faba

With new varieties being introduced, improved farming techniques, better disease control and the expansion of emerging markets, Australia’s faba bean industry is set to grow in the coming years. One of these new markets is China, which Hawthorne says is expected to become a net importer of faba and broad beans.

“Importation of faba and broad beans into China from Australia is currently restricted by trade regulations in China. This situation is expected to eventually be overcome, opening the way for Australian beans to be exported directly to China,” Hawthorne explained.

“China produces 41% of the world’s faba and broad bean, but consumes much of its production. China was a major export competitor to Australia during the 1990s, and still rates fourth in world export tonnages now. The price and quality of their product has influenced Australian export tonnages and prices,” said Hawthorne.

On the production side, northern Australia is seeing a lot of growth with the release of new varieties of marketable quality. Technological advancements in southern Australia have also helped growers better understand the nuances of growing faba beans on more acidic soils. These factors, combined with increasing market demand, should bode well for the industry.

“Market expansion into a wider range of countries will also assist in the further production of faba beans in Australia. There will remain many factors that will affect the production levels in the future including demand from new and emerging markets, comparative pricing from alternative crops and the continued development of new varieties and agronomic practices,” Hawthorne said.