Farmers warn ‘crisis is building’ as record rainfall drastically reduces UK food production

Reduction in yields means UK will be dependent on imports for wheat in coming year and possibly beyond

Record-breaking rain in recent months has drastically reduced the amount of food produced in the UK, farming groups have said.

Livestock and crops have been affected as fields have been submerged since last autumn.

It has been an exceptionally wet 18 months. According to the Met Office, 1,695.9mm of rain fell from October 2022 to March 2024, the highest amount for any 18-month period in England in recorded history. The Met Office started collecting data in 1836.

The UK will be reliant on imports for wheat in the coming year and potentially beyond because of the drastic reduction in yields.

Prices of goods such as bread and other food made using grains are already rising and are likely to rise further, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Wheat production is down 15% since November, the biggest reduction in cropped areas since 2020. Oilseed rape is down 28%, the biggest reduction since the 1980s, and winter barley is down 22% at 355,000 hectares, the biggest reduction since 2020.

The areas that have been planted are likely to produce poor-quality crops as the soil is waterlogged, and some crops are likely to fail. The AHDB said: “The unfavourable weather is putting the yield at risk of being significantly reduced.”

David Eudall, the board’s economics and analysis director, said: “We may see wheat production fall from about 14m tonnes to about 10m tonnes or less, so wheat processors, flour millers and bakers will be looking to import greater quantities of wheat this season for production into bread and animal feed.

“If we see continued lower production from poor weather, stubborn costs (eg fertiliser) and unprofitable prices, we will continually need more imports and further expose our market for a staple product in bread to the world trade.”

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has reported that the rain, combined with unseasonably low spring temperatures, is taking a toll on livestock farming, with a “bleak attrition rate for lambs born this spring already clear”.

Farmers have said they are facing a crisis. The NFU vice-president, Rachel Hallos, said: “People should be in no doubt about the immense pressure UK farm businesses are under thanks to this unprecedented and constant rain. It’s no exaggeration to say a crisis is building. While farmers are bearing the brunt of it now, consumers may well see the effects through the year as produce simply doesn’t leave the farm gate.

“Combined with input costs which have been soaring for two years, the awful impact of this extreme weather on farmers cannot be overestimated. I have real worries for not just the financial situation of many NFU members, but also the impact this is having on them personally.”

The government has opened a farming recovery fund scheme, under which eligible farmers can access grants of between £500 and £25,000 to return their land to the condition it was in before exceptional flooding due to Storm Henk in January.

The farming minister, Mark Spencer, said: “I know how difficult this winter has been for farmers, with extreme weather such as Storm Henk having a devastating impact on both cropping and grazing, as well as damaging property and equipment.

“The farming recovery fund will support farmers who suffered uninsurable damage with grants of up to £25,000, and sits alongside broader support in our farming schemes to improve flood resilience.”

(Article by Helena Horton republished from theguardian.com)

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