A challenging harvest across Europe

08 September 2023

A challenging European harvest

By Luke Cox, NFU Combinable Crops Advisor

EU farmers voice their frustrations at the latest Copa Cogeca meeting

In early September this year I joined Jenny Brunton from the BAB office in Brussels to attend the latest Copa Cogeca Working Party on Cereals, Oilseeds & Protein Crops. The discussions covered the challenges of harvest across Europe this summer, as well as a range of other contentious issues which European farmers are facing.

Whether it be increasing legislation on vital agrochemicals or environmental laws which do not value food production, it is important to remember that life in the EU has continued since the UK left. It is easy to look back and compare the current state of British farming against how it was pre-2020, but European farmers are battling with their own frustrations with their own parliament. As one member of Copa Cogeca put it, European farmers are working under rules and regulations set by people who don’t understand how food and farming works.

European harvest

Naturally due to the time of year, key discussions were held around the harvest performance across Europe. Each nation gave their own individual reflections on where they had got to with harvest this year, and the results they had received so far. To try and summarise their views into a single picture, it would be fair to say that Europe have faced similar challenges to us here in the UK.

Poor yields across all crops as a result of unseasonal weather patterns have squeezed profit margins this year, which were already diminished due to the high input costs experienced in growing the crop. Italy voiced some of the highest yield reductions, not helped by crops taking a battering from hail 15cm in diameter, whilst other nations blamed not just the weather but the lack of fertiliser availability for why their output was so reduced.

The major concern across the continent was for grain quality. No EU nation had a positive story to tell around the quality markets, with reports of 50% of crops being of bad quality regularly shared. Sweden highlighted significant concerns for any grain meeting the malting barley specification, and Romania were keen to share that at current prices farmers will not be making any profit.

Whilst the UK harvest is drawing to a close, there is plenty left to cut in Europe and some nations haven’t even got properly started yet. This means that the picture will continue to develop over the coming weeks.

World markets

Looking at wider market factors, global oilseed production is 5% up compared to last year, with reductions in China’s sunflower seed, Australia’s rapeseed and Malaysia’s palm kernel offset by gains in the US. The cereal harvest has been catastrophic in places, but sufficient feed grain is available due to stocks carried over from last year which will likely keep a lid on prices. Whilst production is down prices are not compensating for it like they normally might, and markets appears to be very volatile and nervous.

The events happening in Ukraine are set to continue to dominate the market story, with the volumes able to come out of Ukraine having a significant impact on global supply. Work is continuing on the solidarity lanes which have enabled grain to be exported from Ukraine without affecting the five nations which had banned the import of any Ukrainian wheat. This was due to the impact the influx of grain was having on their domestic prices, forcing market prices down and pushing farmers into financial crisis. This ban is due to be lifted on 15th September, and whilst all nations wish to support Ukraine the affected nations are adamant it cannot be at such an expense to their countries. As one member put it, there would be an uprising if the ban were to be lifted with no other measures in place.

Wider policy

Aside from harvest, there were plenty of other woes for the working party to discuss. The vote on the renewal of the license for glyphosate is due to take place on 15th September, with plenty of pressure being applied by NGOs on MEPs to vote against its reauthorisation. The group emphasised the importance of accurate and reliable information being used to make an evidence-based decision on this matter, alongside an understanding of the importance of all plant protection products in ensuring the yield and quality of harvested crops.

On a similar note, the EU Commission have recently put forward a Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), which would effectively make certain chemicals inaccessible for agriculture. A worst case scenario impact assessment was conducted by Crop Life Europe on what effect this might have on EU member states, with results detailing up to 30% yield loss in cereals and oilseeds, driving gross margins into the negatives. Innovation alone would not close this yield gap, and yet again EU farmers are having to fight for the ability to continue to produce food.

The EU Protein Strategy is an ongoing piece of work looking at all proteins produced, from plants and pulses to animals and lab-grown proteins. The strategy appears to create some conflict between sustainable food production and a demand on farmers to produce other things such as energy. The hope is that more protein can be produced from within the EU rather than importing it from the rest of the world, but members were quick to point out that if the EU would like domestic protein such as soya they need to pay EU farmers for it rather than importing cheaper alternatives.

Work is continuing on the EU’s version of precision breeding, with a need to identify a method of identifying Category 1 and Category 2 varieties to avoid mis-categorisation. As a reminder, Category 1 varieties will not be labelled any differently to conventionally bred seed (apart from on the seed bag) whereas Category 2 varieties will fall under the regulations for genetic modification. A discussion was also had on the Nature Restoration Law, which originally contained targets on rewetting, carbon and biodiversity specific species. The working party had managed to get this article removed from the law due to the inability to accurately measure these factors and the knock-on effects on food production, but NGOs are pushing hard for it to be reintroduced.

Next meeting

During the meeting an election was held for the Working Party on Cereals. Mr Cedric Benoist from France was elected as Chair, and the elected Vice Chairs were Mr Guido Seedler from Germany and Mr Alexandru-Valentin Tachianu from Romania.

The next Copa Cogeca Working Party on Cereals, Oilseeds & Protein Crops will be held in early December.

Luke Cox with Max Potterton (IFA Cereals Executive), and Bruno Menne (Copa Cogeca Director of Commodities and Trade)

Luke Cox with Max Potterton (IFA Cereals Executive), and Bruno Menne (Copa Cogeca Director of Commodities and Trade)

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