UK: Food price warning as bad weather takes its toll on 2012 harvest

FRESH warnings of a rise in food prices have been sounded after new figures revealed that wheat yields in the UK have plummeted to a low not seen since the 1980s, with a summer of persistent and occasionally torrential rain having taken its toll on harvests.

UK yields for 2012 have been mixed across arable crops, according to results of a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) members’ survey.

But the NFU 2012 harvest survey found that other major arable crops grown in the UK have performed well in difficult conditions, although without the investment made in technology by farmers the wheat harvest could have been much worse.

Wheat yields are down 14.1% on a five year average, from 7.8 to 6.7 tonnes per hectare. The area planted is up 3.8% on five year average, from 1.916 million hectares to 1.988 million hectares, meaning estimated production from the UK is down 11.1% on the same five year average, from 14.915 million tonnes to 13.250 million tonnes.

Spring barley yields have also been hit, and saw a 7.4% on the five year average, from 5.4 to 5.0 tonnes per hectare. The growing area was down 1.2% on five year average, from 604,000 hectares to 597,000 hectares and estimated production down 9.1% on five year average, from 3.255 million tonnes to 2.958 million tonnes.

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But winter barley fared better, with yields up 1.6%, from 6.3 to 6.4 tonnes per hectare. The growing area is up 0.5%, from 389,000 hectares to 391,000 hectares, with estimated production up 0.6% on five year average, from 2.472 million tonnes to 2.486 million tonnes.

Oilseed rape has performed best, with yields up 5.9%, from 3.4 to 3.6 tonnes per hectare. The planted area is also up 18.6%, from 639,000 hectares to 758,000 hectares with estimated production up 25.5% on five year average, from 2.196 million tonnes to 2.755 million tonnes.

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NFU chief combinable crops adviser Guy Gagen said: “Results have been mixed across the main arable crops in 2012, and the average results hide extreme variations across the country.

“Yields for some crops have performed better than average in 2012 with results for barley reported as good for malting and around average for rapeseed in terms of oil content and yield. Much of the 2013 rapeseed crop is now planted and up, and farmers will be looking for further breaks in the weather to complete winter cereal crop planting. I’d like to thank all those growers who responded to the survey and to GrainSafe for providing two automatic grain temperature monitors.”

“However, we have seen a relatively low wheat yield this year, below seven tonnes per hectare. This is something not seen in the UK since the late 1980s. The abnormally high rainfall across the UK since early summer this year has depressed wheat yield. Without considerable investment by our farmers in recent years, the results for wheat could have been much worse this harvest.

“Investments in grain drying and handling facilities have been vital, while improved combine harvester capacity meant significant progress was made when breaks in the weather allowed. Although 2012 may be a harvest to forget for many, it has underlined the need for continual investment in agriculture.

“The poor UK harvest compounds a series of challenging weather events for farmers around the world, most notably drought in North America. The resulting tight supplies of many feed grains have driven up the prices of agricultural commodities around the world. These UK harvest results will do little to alleviate the global dynamics of commodity prices, with the prospect of relatively high commodity levels through to 2013. Cereals prices impact directly on other sectors, especially pig and poultry farmers who are already struggling with higher feed costs.”

NFU director of corporate affairs Tom Hind warned of the knock-on effect for poultry farmers.

“The volatility that we have been experiencing in feed costs recently has been unprecedented and likely to stay. Feed is the single biggest cost to poultry producers and many are reporting to me the significant outlay they are having to make to purchase feed compared to last year. It’s now really vital that the whole UK supply chain works together to ensure these additional costs farmers are facing are recognised or else we see a risk of critical mass in domestic production eroding.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) had already warned of increase food price pressures following the worst drought in 50 years in the US and a heatwave in Russia.

BRC spokesman Richard Dodd said today: “There certainly are price pressures in the system which are coming from poor wheat harvests in this country but also in the other big wheat producing countries.

“The most recent figures are that wheat prices are up something like 29% compared with a year ago.

“Our own figures for the shop price inflation for food show that it has been very, very stable - it has been 3.1% for the last three months which is actually a two-year low. There is no food price explosion going on but there are pressures in the system that will work through.

“Our fiercely competitive retail market is protecting customers from the worst effects of these price pressures.”

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