News / Europe

European Farmers Work to Boost Global Grain Supplies

Selah Hennessy
There's no need for panic over global food prices, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Jose Graziano da Silva, said last week.  They were soothing words at a time when food prices are volatile and drought in many of the world's top grain-producing regions has raised fears over food security.

Britain has just been hit with its wettest summer in 100 years and that's been bad news for a lot of farmers, especially inland and in the north.  But in the eastern pocket of Suffolk, wheat yields have been good.

Farmer Robert Raven has already harvested his wheat and says the quality seems to be high.  He says although agriculture here does suffer shocks, on the whole farmers in western Europe tend to get by.   

"Europe has a less variable harvest over the years purely because our weather is more predictable.  So although we do suffer from volatility ourselves it's certainly not the extremes you get elsewhere," Raven said. "When we talk about a bad year it's nothing compared to what you get in other parts of the world where they get complete crop failures because of the weather."

The European Union is one of the world's top grain producers and a key supplier to neighboring regions in the Middle East and North Africa.  So it's good news that, although its harvest is expected to be slightly lower than normal this year, it's a relatively small shortfall.

Elsewhere it's a different story.

In the United States, the world's leading corn producer, the worst drought in over half a century has depleted crops.  The government estimates this year's production to be the lowest in the past six years.

In Russia, another top grain supplier, a heat wave has slashed the wheat harvest by around one-quarter.   

The poor harvests are causing grain prices to spike and raising concerns about a global food crisis.

Peter Hazell, an expert on world food problems at Imperial College London, says relatively good yields in the European harvest this year is good news but won't resolve worries over food insecurity.

"Europe produces about 300 million tons of cereal each year.  The U.S. produces about 400 million tons," he said.  "To put that in perspective the world produces 2.4 billion tons a year.  So Europe is a significant producer but it also has a lot of people and it actually exports quite a small amount."

Hazell says this year's poor harvests are likely to impact the world's poorest the most.  And it wouldn't be the first time.

Four years ago, prices rose dramatically, making basic staples unaffordable for many.

The crisis contributed to economic and social instability in a number of countries and, in some places, to rioting.

Hazell says in recent years the ratio of supply and demand has become too finely balanced.  

"All the food that we produce these days is used," he said. "Whereas in the past we always had surpluses - we don't have those surpluses anymore so when we get a drought there is a shock in the system, we do not have the stocks to release to buffer it."

He says with price spikes already a problem, and an extra two billion people expected by 2050, there are no easy answers.

But he says in the long term, extra food won't be coming from countries that are already the world's top producers, like in Europe or North America, but from places where land has yet to be fully exploited.

"A lot of the future potential lies in the developing countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America," Hazell said. "These are countries where a lot of poor people are engaged in farming so here is an opportunity to grow more food to feed the world and have some of the poorest people engaged in that process solving their own income and employment problems in the process.  So that is the real win/win opportunity."

But in the short term, farmers in Europe and around the world are working to get the greatest yield out of the land they have.

Robert Raven sold much of this year's wheat months ago.  But with prices now high he will be making a good profit on the extra grain and expects his profits to top recent years'.

European farmers, he says, are doing their best to make sure people around the world can eat.  
"We will be exporting as much as we can to try to help fill the shortfall left by the U.S. and Russia," Raven said.  "Obviously when the world can only produce as much grain as it does we cannot completely fill the gap but Europe is certainly emptying the barns as much as possible."

And with crops yet to be harvested this year in many parts of the world, farmers in those countries are hoping for good weather and strong yields to add to the global stock.

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