Archive Article: 1997/07/05

5 July 1997

In the dark

on malting manoeuvres

WHAT goes up, must come down. But with malting barley, the market has not only dropped – its falling apart at the seams.

The confusion this season over which varieties maltsters are willing to buy has brought problems all along the line. Growers, seed merchants and grain traders are left wondering just what the maltsters and the Institute of Brewers (IOB) are up to.

For malting varieties to succeed, they need the official seal of approval from the IOB. This year the committee seems to have been unable to reach a definite decision on barleys that are likely to dominate winter plantings this autumn. To add insult to injury, the variety that gained full approval last year is now being talked down by certain buyers.

Cynical observers might suggest this could have a lot to do with the large volume of expensive barley that maltsters already have in hand – bought before the market fell. The spectre of oversupply has now materialised, malting contracts have dried up and it seems the industry is in no rush to decide on those varieties that just 12 months ago were considered definite favourites.

It leaves growers in a quandary. First, theres the worry over unsold malting barley now in the ground, that might have to be sold, ostensibly into the feed market, despite all last years fine words from the maltsters. And second, what varieties should go into the drill this autumn?

The breeders have come up trumps and given growers malting types with feed yields. But the downside is becoming horribly apparent – with a potential glut of malting type barley in prospect – premiums fall, contracts disappear, IOB approval seems to count for less, and is then mysteriously delayed on new varieties.

The cruel truth is its a buyers market, when supplies are up. The only hope for malting margins remains with the weather. Perhaps the rain and widespread lodging will make quality samples a little more scarce – doing something to redress the balance?

Reprieve for rhizomania

UNTIL recently, it was dreaded like the plague. But this month the sugar beet disease rhizomania becomes less of a threat.

MAFF has now approved the planting of the first new resistant beet variety Ballerina, on farms where an infected field has been identified.

It can be grown on adjoining fields within the farm, though not on the infected field itself. This is a real step forward. At first it was considered that allowing resistant varieties would be a dangerous move because they could mask the spread of infection.

And while Britain was fighting to wipe rhizomania out, this was sensible enough. But with 76 farms now infected, and more likely to be identified this season, it is now agreed that a more flexible strategy is needed.

Resistant varieties such as Ballerina are valuable, and not only because they give reasonable yields in the presence of disease. It is because they grant the industry more time; the soil-borne infection multiplies more slowly in the presence of resistant varieties than with susceptible sugar beet.

The Ministry have not relaxed the rules completely. Growers on neighbouring farms which are currently clean of the disease will not be permitted to grow Ballerina, unless granted special permission. So it should still be possible to chart the spread of rhizomania infection on to new farms.

However, in 1999 Britains status as rhizomania-free within Europe comes up for review. By that time, the industry may have moved closer still to the prospect of having to live with the disease. Now in the pipeline are other resistant varieties which promise even better yield. By 1999 these should be in the frame commercially.

Rhizomania is here to stay. We cant obliterate it – but we can learn how to draw its teeth.

Tired ideas

on pesticides

NEW Government, but not so new ideas. Putting an official limit on pesticide usage is old hat elsewhere in Europe. This policy has been tried in Denmark and in the Netherlands.

Now this tactic has been re-floated as a possibility for the UK. The debate is underway once more. But as was agreed last time around, it would not be a sensible move.

Limiting the weight of pesticide active ingredients used on a certain area of farm land is too simplistic. It takes no account of the relative merits of the different products in terms of environmental impact. For example, this policy would equate certain powerful insecticides with relatively safe contact herbicides.

An integrated approach, which takes into account the environmental effect of different products, is more sensible. So far, the UK has done pioneering work in the development of practicable integrated crop management (ICM) strategies. This is the best way forward – for all sides. Crude policies can only lead to crude results.

Say no to bully boy tactics

SO five hundred copies of the quality assurance scheme document were snapped up at Cereals 97 and a further 600 copies have been requested by farm co-ops which will play a major role in getting the NFU-sponsored scheme off the ground.

The 5,000 grain producers hoping to be in the scheme by harvest next year should have no qualms that they are taking the most sensible route. Short term gains may not be spectacular but there will be certain markets, including exports, where verified traceability and quality will be essential.

The United States response to European demands for quality assurance and traceability will be interesting, to say the least. If you dont believe that they wont scream "Unfair!", then read what Secretary of State Dan Glickman has to say on the related subject of genetically-modified crops on p15. It seems to fly right in the face of conventional market response to consumer demands.

But thats not all. In 13 US states, new laws have been passed on "agricultural product disparagement". These allow growers or livestock producers to seek damages against anyone who dares suggest a crop, or meat, is unsafe to eat.

Powerful weapons indeed – and there will be some in the UK who might welcome similar radical protection from the wilder claims of the organic or veggie lobbies.

However, in the UK its collaboration, not confrontation, thats the answer. And that means quality assurance.

But these US laws could be dangerous. If at some future date, US products are denied access to European markets because they fail to satisfy our standards for quality assurance, might we face a legal challenge for implying that theres something wrong with US commodities? Now thats a frightening thought…

More Argie bargie…

THE Brits are in danger of having another head on clash with Argentina. This time the war will be over grain.

Last year production reached a record 53.4m tonnes in Argentina, despite bad weather in some regions. This was a staggering 16% higher than the year before – and 38% above the countrys 10 year average.

Average protein content was 12.5% last harvest and a sophisticated marketing policy now targets export wheat for specific uses.

A programme of technical, commercial and economic change following deregulation in Argentina is bringing massive improvements in production – fertiliser use has increased five times since 1990, and doubled last season.

In just six years, sales of farm machinery has grown by more than 40%, and new port facilities and water transport investment have cut costs. Production capacity for both malt and beer has grown 200%, while maize production last year was up 38%, and 60% above the countrys 10 year average yields.

Futures and options contracts were launched in 1990 and 1992 respectively and are forecast to achieve a volume of more than 20m tonnes this year.

The gloves are clearly off; leaving no room for complacency for growers anywhere in Europe.

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