19 September 1998

Comment

A positive spin on harvest

HOW big is it this year? Some trade estimates of the UK grain harvest were given a Viagra-like boost as early reports of good wheat yields started to come in.

There was talk of a huge wheat crop, possibly even breaking the 16m-tonne barrier and beating the 1996 record. Not so, reckons Dalgety. At the companys annual harvest review – now a firm fixture with the national and specialist press – the bubble was burst.

According to its national survey, the wheat tonnage will be 15.95m tonnes; a creditable effort, but not quite a record breaker. Its highly likely the company has got it right – the accuracy of Dalgetys figures is borne out by the fact that they always closely match Ministry statistics, which are not released until later in the season.

Now that Dalgety has come out with its forecast, no doubt the other merchants will follow suit. But while the trade squabbles over national tonnage estimates, growers are more worried about selling their grain.

Theres no denying the reality of dire prices. But there is some good news out there.

First, the effect of the strong pound has been exaggerated. We shouldnt be putting all the blame on sterling. Yes – the exchange rate may have knocked about £3/t off prices, but another £15/t has come off through other factors. These boil down to simple supply and demand.

Thats where improvements are possible. The quality of this harvest is excellent, which boosts our export prospects significantly.

World grain prices are at a 21-year low, a result of turmoil in Russia, the Asian collapse and large crops in South America, the US and Europe. Its been an extraordinary trading year.

Last year, Dalgety traders were pessimistic about the harvest. They said it would be tough to shift, and sure enough, prices came down. This time around they are more confident – almost bullish. Good quality grain, and competitive prices; even hinting at some upward movement of the UK market. Could it be that things are looking up at last?

Whats really, really wanted

IT DOESNT need a scientist to tell growers that politicians and Government cant be trusted. But when Dr Lynn Frewer, of Reading University, told the Cardiff science festival thats what her research shows, it was bittersweet confirmation.

As a psychologist, she has analysed public reaction to issues such as BSE, organophosphates, and now, genetically-modified food. Only Monsanto might be surprised by her conclusion that the public fails to see the point of technology which appears to benefit only the profits of large companies.

And, it seems, Government scientists are now so distrusted that their assertions – post-BSE – that particular foods or processes are safe can actually have the opposite effect on the public to that intended.

The good news is that the great British public does respond positively when politicians and scientists stop preaching and involve them in the consultation and decision-making process.

Thats the way ahead. Give the consumer – and were all consumers, remember – the facts, be up front about new technology and its risks as early as possible in the development process. And give the consumer an obvious voice in the process leading up to the launch of new foods and technologies.

Public beliefs are just as valid as those of the experts in influencing the direction future technology should take. Consultation not education once the course is set increases everyones confidence in taking their own decisions on the food they want to eat.

Why does that genetically-modified tomato paste sell well? Because it is cheap – benefiting the buyer – and it states quite clearly what it is. Enough said.

Smashing news on spuds

HAVE you had your chips today? Were talking potatoes, that is.

Perhaps it was as bangers and mash, a filled baked spud, or boiled and glossy with melted butter?

According to MAFF statistics (and how do they find out?), we eat just over a pound and a half of potatoes a week each. Each year, UK consumption of spuds has shrunk. Even sales of convenience products have been tailing off. Were developing more Continental tastes, switching to rice, pasta or even maize polenta, for the most adventurous.

But so far in 1998, theres been something of a revival of interest in the humble potato. While consumption of other fresh vegetables has dwindled by about a tenth, spuds are up almost 3%.

The marketing department at the British Potato Council will be cheered by this news. Its running a promotional campaign to boost British potatoes, which kicked off with a vigorous effort to get us eating more British earlies. Did you catch the ad on breakfast television, or were you too busy out growing the crop?

Theres more to come. Therell be Chip Week in February. Theres the fish and chip shop of the year competition. And theres an ad campaign, targeting main ware, set to run in the national colour supplements. Coming to the crunch, European Snack Month (sounds unlikely, but its true) will allow the BPC to push British potato-based products throughout September.

Such activity costs money. This year the BPC are spending more than they have ever done before – about £1.5m – on promotion. Last year the bill was about £1.35m. Some growers will grumble at the thought of increasing amounts of their levy cash ending up in the pockets of slick advertising executives.

WHAT has happened to Rialto? Widespread reports of problems with its hagbergs this harvest look ominously like a repeat of the 1993 harvest. Current average hagberg score in NIAB trials is running at 200 – too low for millers tastes, and well below its norm of 270.

Back in 1993, orange blossom midge took much of the blame. Rialtos an open pollinating variety, which perhaps makes it easier for the midge to enter the ear at flowering and lay its eggs. Certainly, Rialto appeared to suffer more than other wheats. By feeding on the ripening grain, the grub affects hagbergs dramatically. An 11% midge attack can cut the crops hagberg score by 50 points or so.

But although midge did return this summer, numbers werent as high as in the bad year. Theres something else at work here – but no-one, even the breeder, knows exactly what is happening. There are also reports of ergot; as an airborne disease, Rialtos open pollinating characteristic could have been a disadvantage here too.

Perhaps very late tillering, particularly in tramlines, might account for some of the poor hagberg grains. Interestingly, the ergot problem seems to have been worse in tramline areas. But this cant be the whole answer.

Rialtos variable hagbergs are a puzzle, and a disappointment, coming after such good results in the past few years. The varietys popularity has risen – seed sold out fast last autumn. But some Rialto growers could have second thoughts this season.

Disease weaknesses are manageable – you can plan a suitable defence if you know what you are tackling. But varietal variability increases uncertainty and risk. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope. These days, thats too big a gamble.

Fair play by supermarkets

THEY are the new bogeymen of farming. Everyone, barring supermarket employees perhaps, will have taken a secret, sneaking pleasure in the news that the giant retailers Tesco, Asda, Safeway and J Sainsbury are to be scrutinised by the Office of Fair Trading.

At the farm gate, growers know only too well how their incomes have slumped. Yet the low prices they receive are not reflected in the price tags on the supermarket shelves.

Inevitably, the question is asked as to where the missing money is going. And when the major multiples announce ever-increasing profits, the answer appears to be glaringly obvious.

The supermarkets deny any exploitation of hard-pressed producers. But as Mandy Rice-Davies put it, they would do, wouldnt they?

At present, consumers have little sympathy for growers. They are not aware of any agricultural slump – they hear some grumbles but assume that it is just the perennial whingeing of a supported, feather-bedded industry.

If low prices were passed down through the food chain, opinions would change. It could only help the public face of agriculture if consumers were made aware that there is a real crisis in the country.

But growers shouldnt hold their breath. The preliminary investigation will not be complete until the end of the year, and the findings will then be reviewed. So theres not going to be any quick fix. But at least the growing power of the supermarkets is being put under the microscope by the OFT – and thats a step in the right direction for producers.

Safe and sound

EVEN for the most safety-conscious operator, danger is ever-present on arable farms. But its not just a case of obvious hazards such as those posed by the combination of heavy plant and careless humans.

As arable businesses become more sophisticated, the potential pitfalls follow suit. For instance, many growers are ignoring all the fuss about the millennium bug, on the basis that because the farm office computer is compliant, theres nothing to worry about.

What a mistake. Much machinery is fitted with electronic gizmos containing timer chips, which could be heading for a crash. Action is needed sooner, rather than later, because trouble could start as soon as January 1999 – not just in the year 2000.

Take the first step to safety with our special reports starting on p43.