In your hands: Growers must focus on food quality

In the second of a new series, Crops in association with BASF, shows why the biggest job on earth is in farmers’ hands. Caroline Stocks looks at how farmers meet the quality needs of food manufacturers and consumers

It means different things to different people, but “food quality’ is a term that is taking on increasing significance in UK crop production.

As more emphasis is placed on producing greater supplies of nutritious, affordable and sustainable food in the face of climate change and limited resources, the quality of food being produced on farms is under ever more scrutiny.

For consumers, food quality is linked closely with food safety, and while retailers and processors have to address those concerns, for them it also has implications in terms of limiting waste and meeting environmental obligations.

Satisfying these factors can throw up challenges at farm level as greater expectation is put on producers to meet the various demands, says Susannah Bolton, HGCA head of research and knowledge transfer.

But despite the challenges, the quest for ever greater food quality is one producers should see as an area of great potential.

“There are lots of great stories out there where striving for better quality has actually created lots of opportunities for growers,” she says.

She believes farmers are much better at producing milling-quality wheat and malting barley.”

Much improvement in crop quality has been achieved by farmers and agronomists refining the production processes, but greater collaboration across the supply chain is enabling producers to create quality products which meet processors’ demands.

“Processors are much more interested in what happens on-farm – from production methods and traceability to assurance – and we are seeing much more sophisticated specifications in the market,” says Guy Gagen, NFU chief arable 

Food quality: the figures  
5m tonnes of graine is milled by the UK flour milling industry each year to produce 4m tonnes of flour
37% of Group 1 milling wheat reached the full specification compare with just 3% the year before
1,250ppb is the maximum EU limit for the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON) in wheat for human consumption
100ppb is the maximum EU limit for the mycotoxin zearalenone in wheat
2m tonnes of UK barley is grown to tight specifications to make 1.6m of malt

Some specifications, like those requested from Warburtons growers (see “Case study” tab), are based on growers meeting tight conditions on elements such as protein content, which gives processors the exact raw material they need to produce food.

“There is a lot of waste in the supply chain, so if you can overcome that by focusing efforts to achieve specific characteristics, that can save money for the processor and result in more money in the supply chain to share with farmers,” Mr Gagen says.

“Provenance can also be part of that, with brands being interested in where crops are grown, as well as specific qualities in how the crops are grown, such as ensuring low-levels of fusarium in breakfast cereals.”

These kinds of contracts present opportunities for growers, with increasingly different outlets available for different grain qualities and premiums available for those who do want to grow to processors’ tight specifications, Mr Gagen adds.

“There are more and more supply chain arrangements appearing, and although they can present more work in terms of the systems being used, they can result in greater reward.”

Accreditation and seeing wheat as a food ingredient rather than a commodity are key factors enabling grain co-op Camgrain to meet the needs of breakfast cereal 

That is why Camgrain invested £1.5m in its Clean Wheat Processing facility at the Balsham site near Cambridge, with plans for a second facility near Kettering.

“It is effectively a series of specialist cleaners that process wheat into a food-grade ingredient,” says managing director Philip Darke.

Specialist vehicles then take the processed wheat straight to the food factory as and when required, on a just-in-time basis.

“It means we are offering a food ingredient service rather than just being train suppliers. These food manufacturers don’t have the space or desire to store raw grain,” he says.

Camgrain’s Clean Wheat Processing facility is accredited to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as Grade A, which is crucial since key manufacturers such as Nestle will only source BRC-accredited grain to make its breakfast cereal, he says.

Collaboration with plant breeders and researchers is also an important part of the efforts to improve crop quality, Dr Bolton adds.

“Plant breeders have continued to produce very high-yielding, high-quality varieties which help growers get a better check of what they produce and meet the specifications of processors.

“We’ve also got better checks on what is being developed,” she says. “We are in a situation now with the Recommended List where potential Group 1 varieties are going through a further year of commercial testing to make sure new varieties really do work well with growers.

“With the new Skyfall wheat variety, the plant breeders have also arranged for commercial quantities to be produced and they will go through the commercial marketing process (the first to go through the new system) to give growers the extra guarantee that the variety they choose will be the one the millers want.”

European policy around chemical use also needs to be tackled if producers are to meet their full potential in producing quality crops, says Dr Bolton.

“Regardless of the varieties created, if the tools to control pests are taken away it’s difficult to produce quality high-yielding crops,” she says.

“It’s a huge challenge for the industry to be able to deliver the quality required with potentially fewer active ingredients, so we need to work really hard both through research and the supply chain to look at how we overcome that.”

If European policy won’t adapt to take a risk-based – rather than hazard-based – approach to chemical use, the industry has to be prepared to look at alternative options, she adds.

“We must work really hard through research, the supply chain and alternative agronomy to come up with different options – whether that is brand-new varieties, or ensuring crops are grown in a way which ensure crop qualities are maximised.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s one we should be optimistic we can overcome.”

Warburtons milling wheat

More than 300 growers across England supply bread-maker Warburtons as part of a collaboration between the baker and grain 
business Openfield.

Taking a whole-chain approach, Warburtons has gone back to basics to work with farmers to produce to a tight specification, creating a grain with specific bread-making characteristics.

“The grain is grown at a lower-specification than the rest of the Group 1 milling industry,” says Russell Lake, Openfield commercial manager.

“We ask them to grow to a minimum of 12.5% protein and 225 Hagberg, which is a level Warburtons has requested because it helps with baking. We also ask them not to use foliar nitrogen, which boosts total protein, but does nothing to the quality. It means growers are producing the level of quality Warburtons wants, but it is also potentially cheaper to produce and better for the environment.”

Mr Lake says it can be hard communicating Warburtons’ demands to growers, but greater collaboration between the supply chain is something all parties benefit from.

“Many growers have signed long-term commitments to grow for Warburtons, which is good for growers when there isn’t always a ready outlet for milling wheat. We have also attached a premium onto the contract of £20/t which insures their costs are covered.

“It’s a different kind of relationship, but one that our contracted growers are proud of. They benefit from producing a lower-specification crop and they are keen to market their wheat to a big-brand name.”

In future, Mr Lake thinks more companies will enter into similar contracts with growers to ensure particular quality standards are met.

“There’s increasing legislation around things such as carbon footprint scoring where companies need to prove they are monitoring carbon and taking steps to be more environmentally-sustainably.

“They will need to engage more and more with growers to get that data and find ways to work together to make improvements. In that respect, I think we will see more and more collaboration as they look to meet their quality standards,” he says.

John Young

Stewardship manager, BASF

Food quality is most obvious in the fresh food sector, where appearance of produce is paramount.

But there are growing levels of competition in the retail sector which are pushing it higher and higher up the agenda across the food chain.

Most supermarkets lay down quality standards, and increasingly as part of these the arable commodity sector has to meet those targets.

If they want to get a premium for their produce, growers will have to respond to these demands by working more closely with retailers and processors and being willing to adapt their production techniques.

This is where quality standards and accreditation schemes such as Red Tractor or Leaf Marque can help in helping growers meet certain quality standards, not just in produce, but the way they produce.

In the future we will see more emphasis on accreditation in terms of making sure produce is of good quality and safe.

Most of the major retailers operate their own quality standards, and being part of an accreditation scheme can help growers meet them.

Across the industry, our goal in producing quality food is to produce food which is safe, affordable and available on demand.

It is a challenge our producers are stepping up to domestically, but we risk being hampered by a politcally-led European regulatory system which is already one of the toughest in the world.

If this continues we face the prospect of even more active ingredients being taken away, which could have a serious impact on our ability to produce quality and quantity of produce we need.

We have to continue to push hard for pragmatic regulations so that European policy decisions are based on scientific evidence rather than being the result of political pressure. Without it, helping growers meet the right quality standards becomes a struggle which should be unnecessary.

See also: In your hands: Food security

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