Arable farmers can meet food challenge

Arable farmers in East Anglia have the land, skill and technology to boost grain and oilseed production to meet rapidly growing demand for food and fuels at home and abroad.

A forecast of global food shortages as the world's population is set to exceed eight billion by 2050 could be an opportunity for the region's arable farmers, suggests rural affairs editor MICHAEL POLLITT.


Arable farmers in East Anglia have the land, skill and technology to boost grain and oilseed production to meet rapidly growing demand for food and fuels at home and abroad.

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall, also a cereal grower, is bullish about his industry's long-term prospects as a producer of food and greener fuels.

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Global demand for cereals, hit by drought in the southern hemisphere and Europe, pushed cereal stocks to a record low since last year's harvest.

In a stark warning, Prof Bill McKelvey, of the Scottish Agricultural College, highlighted the decline in the world's wheat reserves to just 40 days' supply last year. It was 100 days in 2000. And, rising demand for biofuels plus the growing wealth of emerging economies will put prices and supply under even more pressure, he warned.

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Since Mr Kendall was elected president of the National Farmers' Union in February last year, it has almost coincided with brighter fortunes for the cereal sector.

Today, arable farmers are enjoying three-figure wheat prices - the first time for a decade. And in the past year, milling-wheat prices have risen from £75 to about £100 per tonne. Feed wheat, £70 this time last year, is almost £95 and barley has risen by more than £22 per tonne to £91. So, cereal growers can smile although it is costing livestock producers - a classic example of “Up Corn, Down Horn”.

Mr Kendall, who farms about 1,500 acres with his brother near Biggleswade, has repeatedly stressed the dual approach of efficient and environmentally-friendly farming.

“And if we can meet these challenges, we must not go back to some previous messages where farming was so important that it didn't matter what the consequences were.

“There is a great opportunity here but let's do it hand in hand with making sure that we have as light an environmental footprint as possible,” he said. “We should find ways of getting as many bangs for bucks as possible - using by-products from agriculture, straw from agriculture and maybe poorer-quality grains might go into energy production,” said Mr Kendall.

Britain's cereal growers have been very successful in the past four decades. Since 1975, average wheat yields doubled from about 4.8 tonnes per hectare to about eight tonnes while national production tripled from four to 14.4m tonnes last year. The impact of new higher-yielding varieties and better crop-protection products has been enormous. So, the industry could go into overdrive if part of the country's set-aside land, roughly 558,000 hectares or the area of Norfolk, was planted up. But, long-term switch of land into environmental schemes with field and grass margins alongside hedges, banks and woodland, will limit the impact. This is the point that Mr Kendall has repeatedly made - farmers must be sympathetic to the environmental footprint.

And Prof McKelvey's message that global food shortages may result in more intensive farming and even GM crops in Britain and Europe was rejected by green groups.

Norfolk's Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, was adamant on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday that organic production systems could still feed the world. But competition between biofuels and food crops will become a serious problem, said Prof McKelvey.

It was in 1984 that Britain's arable farmers had a record grain harvest of 26.4m tonnes when fence-to-fence production was allowed. This was the days before environmental schemes and countryside stewardship. Then the European Union introduced set-aside which reached a maximum 15pc of the arable area to curb the grain mountains. Last year, the cereal harvest was 21 million tonnes.

Now, set-aside is 8pc and Norfolk farm business specialist, David Bolton, of Cheffins, suggests that it could be scrapped within a couple of years. Farmers have always responded to the demand to produce food and the economic signals from the market, he said.

“If you look at the next 10 or 15 years ahead and the extra technology which may become available, then 12, 13 or even 14 tonnes per ha of wheat may be possible on some soils. A lot of the benefits will stem from more exciting plant breeding. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a while to get that ball to spin a bit faster but if the need is there then science could clearly try to deliver,” said Mr Bolton.

Guy Smith, regional NFU chairman, who farms in Essex, recognised the inevitable tension between food, fuel and diversity. “You can't have all three but we like to think that modern agriculture can strike a balance. We're a lot cleverer at it than we were 20 years ago,” he added.

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