Poor weather has devastated the British wheat harvest in 2013. Photo: David Bagnall / Alamy

By John Vidal, environment editor
12 June 2013

(The Guardian) – The wettest autumn since records began, followed by the coldest spring in 50 years, has devastated British wheat, forcing food manufacturers to import nearly 2.5m tonnes of the crop.

"Normally we export around 2.5m tonnes of wheat but this year we expect to have to import 2.5m tonnes," said Charlotte Garbutt, a senior analyst at the industry-financed Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. "The crop that came through the winter has struggled and is patchy and variable. The area of wheat grown this year has been much smaller."

Analysts expect a harvest of 11m-12m tonnes, one of the smallest in a generation, after many farmers grubbed up their failing, waterlogged crops and replanted fields with barley. According to a National Farmers Union poll of 76 cereal growers covering 16,000 hectares, nearly 30% less wheat than usual is being grown in Britain this year.

Britain is usually the EU's third biggest wheat grower but it will be a net importer for the first time in 11 years. "Our poll is a snapshot but it is extremely worrying. If this plays out nationally, we will be below average production for the second year in a row," said NFU crops chair Andrew Watts. "If the experts are to be believed and extreme weather is to become more frequent, we must look at ways of supporting the industry."

The diminished wheat harvest will add to growing concerns about the amount of food that British farmers can grow per hectare. According to a new analysis by the development board, UK wheat and oilseed rape yields have barely improved since the 1980s, despite genetic developments and better fertilisers. No one reason is given but severe and fluctuating weather is thought to have played a part.

Other crops have been badly damaged by the past year's severe weather. Oilseed rape and oats have suffered, and sugar beet, which is grown on 125,000 hectares mainly in eastern England, has been hit by a mystery condition that has stopped seeds germinating and has cut production by 50% in some areas. "The weather has definitely had an impact. The affected crops were sown in the very cold weather," said Mark Stevens, a scientist with the British Beet Research Orgaanisation.

The severe weather has also led to one of the latest fruit harvests in years. Major varieties of apple, including cox, are not expected to be in the shops until late September, said Adrian Barlow, chief executive of the trade body English Apples & Pears. "We don't yet know the long-term consequences of the winter. We have extremely cold weather which was good, but we have had trees with their feet in water for months and extremely windy conditions. But we are hopeful of a better harvest than last year."

However, the long winter could make for a succulent soft fruit crop, according to Harry Hall, Britain's biggest strawberry grower. "The crop is around three weeks later than average but the fruit has had extra time to grow so the quality is really good," said Hall, who expects to sell 7,700 tonnes this year.

Food prices are unlikely to rise significantly as a result of the poor British harvests, because these are determined by international trade. However, cereal food producer Weetabix had to halt production of some of its breakfast cereals as a result of the disastrous wheat harvest in April.

The full impact of the hard winter is only now being seen, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Its latest analysis says the total income from farming decreased by £737m in 2012 to £4.7bn, with farmers facing both crop losses and higher costs to feed their animals.

Earlier this year the British Agriculture Bureau said flooding in the UK had caused £1.3bn in damage in 2012.

This week, the UN and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that environmental factors such as droughts, bad harvests and lack of land were likely to limit the growth of global food output. Agricultural production is expected to grow 1.5% a year on average over the coming decade, compared with annual growth of 2.1% between 2003 and 2012. Another widespread drought like the one experienced last year in the US and elsewhere could raise crop prices by 15%-40%, it said.

Farmers fail to feed UK after extreme weather hits wheat crop


12 June 2013 (BBC) – Britain's wheat harvest this year could be almost 30% smaller than it was last year because of extreme weather, the National Farmers' Union has warned.

In a snapshot poll, it found a smaller area was planted last autumn because of the wet soil conditions.

However, the NFU said there was no reason to suggest a lower quality crop.

The National Association of British and Irish Millers said a lower yield would not affect prices, which are governed by bigger global producers.

The NFU questioned 76 farmers covering 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of land and its findings suggested wheat production would be below average for the second year in a row.

NFU combinable crops chairman Andrew Watts said the continually wet weather during planting time, between September and December, had resulted in less wheat being planted. He also said subsequent bad weather, including flooding and snowfalls, had not been conducive to a high yield.

Most of the UK's wheat crop is harvested between July and September and last year's harvest had lower volumes and quality because of weather extremes, with months of drought followed by downpours and flooding.

Earlier this year, breakfast cereal producer Weetabix said it would have to temporarily scale back production of some of its products because of the poor wheat harvest.

Alex Waugh, from the National Association of British and Irish Millers, said the lower-than-normal crop yield was not good news for farmers but it was unlikely on its own to make a difference to consumers in the UK.

"What happens in the UK depends on what is going on internationally," he said.

"And although it is still early days because the harvest is still a few months away, the expectation around the world is for a good crop. Grain prices might actually turn out slightly lower than they are today."

"Grain prices in the UK are only likely to rise if they are also rising elsewhere in the world."

Mr Watts said: "A myriad of factors have hit arable farms this year, from the extreme weather through to news that there will be restrictions on neonicotinoids (neuro-active insecticides) to come in the future.

"Our poll is a snapshot, but it is extremely worrying that the planted area remaining viable for 2013 harvest on those farms looks set to be 29% smaller than last year. If this plays out nationally, we will be below average production for the second year in a row.

"The saving grace in past years has been crop protection technology which can help maintain yield potential and all-important grain quality by guarding against pests and ensure crops are more drought and flood resistant."

However, he said lobbying had led to potential restrictions on the use of certain pesticides amid concerns about their impact on bees and fungicides.

In a separate survey, the NFU found nearly half of arable farmers (45%) felt less confident about the prospects for their farm businesses in the next 12 months compared with 2012.

It was "hardly surprising" that short-term confidence was so low under those circumstances, Mr Watts added.

"If the experts are to be believed and extreme weather is to become more frequent over the coming years, we must look at ways of supporting the industry," he said. [more]

Britain's wheat crop 'down by third after extreme weather'

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