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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, May 8 (Reuters) - Worse than expected weather will plunge Syria’s wheat production to a nine-year low this year and the government may use its strategic reserve to help meet domestic needs, a senior agriculture official said on Thursday.
Syria is a major food and farm commodities player in the Middle East and a traditional exporter to Egypt and Jordan.
Food security is a cornerstone of the Baath Party led government, which is confronting a U.S. led drive to isolate it after Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004.
Output of wheat, which will start to be harvested next month, is expected to fall to 3 million tonnes compared to a planned 4.7 million and 4.1 million tonnes last year, Mohammad Hassan Katana told Reuters in an interview.
Production of barley will fall to 200,000 tonnes this year compared with 784,000 in 2007 and 253,000 tonnes in 1999, the lowest on record, he added.
"We have had a massive deterioration in weather conditions this year. It is one of the worst on record," said Katana, who heads statistics and planning at the Agriculture Ministry.
"Most of our production will come from irrigated areas that have been hit by lack of rain," he added.
The year started with 55 days of frost, which delayed growth of wheat and barley, and this was followed by unseasonably scorching weather in April that finished chances of harvesting areas fed by rain, he said.
Rain-fed areas account for around one third of Syria’s cereal production. Rain was 40 percent below normal this year and this resulted in a 20 percent drop in yield in irrigated areas, Katana said.
This year’s wheat output, expected to be the worse than the 2.5 million tonnes in 1999, will be enough to cover demand for bread but not for flour used in pastries and other food, he added.
But Katana said wheat security, a pillar of strategic policies, will remain intact due to large reserves Syria has built over the years.
"We have the strategic reserve to use in these circumstances. It has been built for such scenarios," he said.
The Syrian government does not disclose its strategic reserve volume. Regional agricultural officials describe it as huge, enough to cover the country’s wheat consumption for years.
Diminishing water resources, however, remained a long-term problem facing Syria’s commodities sector, Katana said. Syria’s has 18 million people and population growth of 2.45 percent.
"We do not expect to increase the irrigated land for wheat and barley. The main challenge facing us is to improve technology and raise productivity," he said.
Syria’s domestic need of wheat is upward of 4 million tonnes a year. The government, which has a marketing monopoly, cancelled export contracts last year after output fell to 4.1 million tonnes compared to a planned 4.9 million due to weather. President Bashar al-Assad ordered the state marketing company in November to supply Jordan, Egypt and Yemen with 276,000 tonnes of wheat from the strategic reserves.
Syria is also a major regional exporter of cattle, but the sector has been hit by a shortage of barley in the last two years, with high world prices discouraging imports of the commodity. Barley is a major component of animal feed.
(Editing by Peter Blackburn)