10 April 1999

Oilseed crops have taken a hammering with prices and subsidies plunging. But both oilseed rape and linseed will take, and deserve to take, the lions share of the break crop area this season. In this special we bring the latest advice on making both crops more profitable than ever in 1999.

Oilseed rape survives Agenda 2000

OILSEED rape suits UK arable rotations, and growers like it. Even when prices tumble and area aid is cut, this crop hangs on in there. The winter census by MAFF and the Scottish Office reveals a mere 2.4% fall in plantings this autumn; this is put down to the wet weather upsetting drilling schedules.

But at 432,000ha, the UK area remains well over our national limit – the Maximum Guaranteed Area – set by the EU, following pressure from the US, under the Blair House agreement at 346,500ha. And this years total doesnt include industrial rape on set-aside, which is relatively more profitable this year. By the end of January, contracts for industrial use were four times the 1998 area, at a record-breaking 145,000ha. And even more contracts may be signed up before the 15 May deadline.

The popularity of oilseed rape will backfire on us. Under the Agenda 2000 reforms, the cumulative Blair House overshoot penalties will still apply, sadly, during the three-year phase-in period for the lower, flat rate area aid. These penalties are triggered if the EU as a whole exceeds its oilseed area.

Then theres the theoretical limit on industrial cropping – the ceiling that will be imposed as soon as EU industrial crops generate enough protein meal to outweigh the equivalent meal from 1m tonne of soya. Complicated, isnt it. As yet, this instrument to limit industrial cropping hasnt been called upon.

But will the enthusiasm for industrial rape in 1999 stretch the system so much, that the EU bureaucrats have no choice but to use this braking mechanism and impose yet another price penalty? With these issues bubbling away in the background, oilseed rape growers ought to be grateful to agriculture minister Nick Brown. During the hard bargaining at the Agenda 2000 meetings, he pulled off an important concession which will help the UK in particular. And that is the creation of a safety net, which will be in place for rape crops drilled this autumn.

This safety net will prevent area aid from falling below that for cereals – despite all the potential cuts. Without this protection, it looks unlikely that the UKs preference for oilseed rape could have survived the full force of the Agenda 2000 cut, Blair House penalties and the drop in market price. Rape would have fallen victim to the need to protect margins, and the US soya lobby would have been rubbing their hands with glee.

Well done, Mr Brown. In the past 20 years, oilseed rape has earned its keep as a break, proving an ideal partner to wheat. Losing such a useful crop would have left a big black hole in arable rotations.