FW Opinion: Dismal wheat harvest underlines food security threat

With well over half the UK grain harvest now gathered in, there is no doubt that many arable farmers have endured the toughest of years.

From start to finish, the weather has been extreme. Just in the past 10 days we have experienced a mini heat wave, which put a stop to any further crop growth, followed by torrential rain that flooded fields and flattened crops.

See also: Harvest 2020 – the 5 top-yielding wheat varieties map

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Philip Clarke
Executive editor, Farmers Weekly

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All this was on top of a year which has featured a sodden autumn, a warm, wet winter and an exceptionally dry spring. Little wonder that many farmers feel the weather gods are against them.

And little wonder too that NFU vice-chairman Tom Bradshaw was quoted in the Guardian this week predicting the “lowest [wheat] harvest in 30 years”.

Recent figures from the AHDB are not quite so bleak, suggesting that to 11 August, by which time almost half the country’s wheat had been harvested, average yields were back about 10% at 7.5t/ha – though the situation will have deteriorated considerably since then.

Combined with reduced plantings, trade expectations are for a crop of less than 10m tonnes, which would leave the country a net importer of wheat once again.

It is therefore poignant that today (Friday) is also the NFU’s so-called “self-sufficiency day” – the day on which the UK would have run out of food for the year if it had depended wholly on domestic supplies.

Put another way, the country is now just 64% self-sufficient in total food – marginally better than last year, but well down on where we stood in the mid-1980s. For fruit and vegetables, the figures are 18% and 55% self-sufficiency respectively. 

No surprise then that NFU president Minette Batters is calling for a “horticultural revolution” to help redress the balance.

To some extent, this will require government support. The NFU is calling for investment in our water infrastructure, “to better manage increasingly volatile weather”. But for horticultural and cereal growers alike, raising output will also require a profitable return from the market.

Normally, a reduced harvest like the one we are now facing would be associated with higher prices to compensate. But, as our Global Grain Insight on p22 explains, there are plentiful supplies of wheat and maize elsewhere and “the world will not be short of grain as autumn approaches”.

As is so often the case, it will be down to farmers to weather the storm by whatever means they can, be it engaging in joint ventures, negotiating lower rents, restructuring debt, adjusting cropping and marketing – and all the other strategies consultants like to reel off.

But, longer term, Defra still needs to accepts greater responsibility for supporting basic food production, as well as its commitment to environmental improvement.

The Agriculture Bill, revamped last January, does include some improvements on its previous incarnation – for example, giving government the ability to intervene in the market in exceptional circumstances and seeking to improve fairness in the supply chain.

But, with the bill still making its way through parliament, (it is currently waiting for their Lordships to return from their holidays), there are many further improvements that can be made to make it fit for purpose.

Holding a review of the nation’s food security every year, rather than once every five years as proposed, as well as protecting British farmers from lower-standard imports, would be a good place to start.

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