By Gus Trompiz
PARIS, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Morocco aims to increase fourfold the amount of state-owned land it leases to farmers and investors, to increase production and speed up modernisation of Moroccan farming, the director of agricultural development said.
To attract private investors, the kingdom has been leasing farmland for 20 to 50 percent of its market value in long-term contracts of up to 40 years, Mohammed El Guerrouj said.
"We are in the process of making available all the farmland we can," El Guerrouj told Reuters in an interview at the annual Paris farm show. "It's then up to the investors to propose farming projects."
Like other North African countries, Morocco relies on imports of staple cereals. It is trying to modernise its farms to improve food security and avert the kind of price rises that contributed to popular unrest in Arab countries in 2011.
Some 105,000 hectares of state-owned farmland was leased in past decades for projects that represent a total of 2.6 billion euros in investments, El Guerrouj said. The new leases will go through tenders open to domestic and foreign investors.
So far, more than half of the leases have gone to operators from France, Spain and Italy. Gulf states account for only about 3 percent, El Gerrouj said.
Morocco will hold regular tenders as suitable state farmland is gradually identified and made available, he said. About 40,000 hectares may be offered this year. The target is 500,000 hectares by 2020, nearly four times the current level. Total farmland is about 7.8 million hectares.
Several million tonnes of cereals are imported each year, depending on the local harvest. It is too early to estimate the 2014 harvest, before a critical period for crops in March, but rainfall last month had helped, said Soufiane Larguet, head of strategy and statistics at the Moroccan agriculture ministry.
"We're fairly confident," he said. "Rains were lacking a bit at the start of the season, but they have caught up."
Morocco harvested a bumper cereal crop of 9.7 million tonnes last year, including just over 5 million tonnes of soft wheat. But a slow start to imports led it to suspend import duties and introduce import subsidies on soft wheat for the Jan. 1 to April 30 period.
Larguet said the continuation or not of the import measures would depend on prospects for this year's harvest. (Editing by Larry King)