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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada and Morocco said on Thursday they will start talks on a free-trade agreement, a deal that the Canadian Wheat Board says is vital to maintaining its sales of durum wheat.
Canada, the world's biggest durum exporter, supplies Morocco with 80 percent of its imported durum, but the gradual implementation of Morocco's free-trade deal with the United States gives U.S. durum an increasing tariff advantage, the Wheat Board said in a statement.
Most of the durum that Canada ships to Morocco is a top-quality grade used to make couscous, pasta and bread.
"The color of the flour it produces and its consistent quality from cargo to cargo make our durum wheat very desirable here," Wheat Board Chief Executive Ian White said in a statement from Morocco. "Morocco is therefore a strategic component of our durum export program."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the start of free trade talks during a visit to Rabat with farm exporters and industry groups. Canada currently has no free-trade agreements with African countries.
Morocco was Canada's second-biggest durum export market after Algeria over five years through 2008/09, averaging annual imports of more than 500,000 tons.
Canadian sales to Morocco are up during the first four months of the current 2010/11 marketing year by nearly one-third to about 250,000 tons.
The Wheat Board holds a government-granted monopoly to buy and sell Western Canada's wheat and barley.
A free-trade deal would also benefit Canadian shipments of legume crops like lentils, peas and canary seeds, said the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, a coalition group promoting more open agriculture trading.
Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Alden Bentley