Between 1 January and 9 May, France received an average of 200mm of rain. This is barely half the country’s normal rainfall over that period and the least rain since 1960 in any year bar 1976 and 2011. French producers are already predicting small ears and a light harvest unless things improve quickly, but at the time of writing the weather forecast for the country looks extremely unfavourable in terms of a break in the drought.
This is very worrying, not just for French farmers but for the world. France produces 35m tonnes of wheat (compared to the UK’s 13m tonnes) of which it exports roughly half, making it the world’s fourth largest exporter.
Those exports have never been more crucial, given that Ukraine’s exports are disrupted by Russia’s invasion. Russia has also stopped its own wheat exports to ensure that it has a strategic reserve, given that few countries now want to trade with Russia because of its rogue status.
Russia and Ukraine together account for a quarter of globally traded wheat, so it’s no wonder Egypt’s government (Egypt being the world’s largest importer of wheat) recently stated that it was counting on France to supply it with the crop.
Just what effect this uncertainty and volatility will have on our government’s wheat production policy it’s hard to tell. As we are all aware, the UK farm policy emphasis since Brexit has been on re-wilding, biodiversity and reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions rather than increasing wheat production.
Indeed, the recently published ‘National Food Strategy’ that was commissioned by the Government barely mentions national food security or increasing UK wheat production as policy goals.
The problem, of course, is that the world’s climate is now changing to such a degree that simply trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stop climate change may not be enough to avert a global shortage of wheat.
India, which has become a major wheat producer and even exporter, is currently struggling with a heatwave. In the US, 30 out of 50 states are experiencing droughts, as are two large grain-producing states in Canada – Saskatchewan and Alberta. Even the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, is thought to be in trouble because of unfavourable weather.
So, what is a humble Sussex sodbuster supposed to make of this? With new crop 2022 wheat prices continually being dragged ever higher by old crop prices I guess I will be tempted to sow wheat from fence row to fence row this autumn, allowing for limitations created by blackgrass.
But the scary thing is that we may not be many years away from our government insisting that we do just that – for ‘food security’ reasons.