30 August 2002


Unless it finds a new

direction soon, the

UKwheat industry

will go into terminal

decline, says Jeff Cox

As the combines finish the last of the UK wheat harvest in the south and continue their work in the north, its time we found a new direction for UK wheat.

We need to find innovative ways of creating value for everyone in the UK wheat business; new directions that make our industry sustainable and worth investing in. Otherwise it faces terminal decline.

The truth is that wheat prieced at just over £50/t or even £60/t isnt sustainable for anyone. UK grain prices could recover a little in the coming few years, particularly if we join the k. But with the USA increasing farm subsidies, prices are in real danger of being depressed still further.

Amid all this uncertainty one thing is sure. Traditional grain markets are unlikely to offer more than mediocre returns for our wheat for the foreseeable future. Regardless of US policy, lower-cost eastern European and Black Sea producers will make sure of that – not to mention competition from the global maize industry which rules the feed grain market.

The UK wheat industry cannot continue to serve its established domestic and export markets alone. These will not generate sufficient returns to justify investments for growers or the supply industry.

We must accept that continued upstream improvements in increasing yields or cutting costs wont offer enough extra long-term value to prevent the continued, steady decline.

Instead, our thinking needs to be focussed downstream at our markets, innovatively and laterally, to build the extra value we need into our product. The sort of value that will give us a worthwhile competitive advantage.

Where will this value come from? Improved raw materials that provide extra efficiencies and quality to processors, perhaps. Or even better, foodstuffs with unique properties that generate extra consumer value at retail level. Properties that could lift the value of wheat in a loaf of bread from under £300/t to say £2000/t.

In the food market we have huge potential for improvement by focussing on three primary areas: taste and texture; health; and, convenience. Lets look in detail at the protein, starch and fibre that are our core products and see how we can give them increased value.

Then, lets turn our attention to specialist products for a host of improved, non-food applications. The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies.

Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant breeding.

Our real challenge today is to work closely with the food industry and interest groups to identify the most valuable areas for development from the market perspective, then focus our efforts on developing varieties and growing regimes to achieve them.

By harnessing the inherent genetic variation, modern technology and accumulated knowledge at our disposal in a co-ordinated way across the farming and food industry we can seize the many opportunities open to us.

We have to do so rapidly in parallel with traditional variety and agronomic improvement programmes if we are to ensure our wheat industry has a future in the increasingly open, competitive and subsidy-free market we face.

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