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U.K. Has Organic Wheat Seed Shortage as Rain Spurs Blight

U.K. Farms Face Organic Wheat Seed Shortage as Rain Spurs Blight
Wheat being harvesting near Cambridge, U.K. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Organic wheat farmers in the U.K. can’t find seeds just as winter-crop planting begins, after the wettest summer in a century spurred a blight of diseases.

Ninety-seven percent of the U.K.’s wheat crop had signs of fusarium head blight, a fungal disease encouraged by wet weather, the crop-quality service CropMonitor said last month, citing field samples. Conventional farmers can treat seeds with chemicals to kill the disease. Crops planted using non-treated organic seeds will probably fail if they’re contaminated, said Ruth Mason, a food chain adviser at the National Farmers Union.

“I’ve been talking to people from right down in the south to Scotland, and they’re all in the same situation,” said John Pawsey, who farms about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of organic crops near Bury St. Edmunds, England, and needs to plant fields within the next five weeks. “There’s no seed available.”

Organic crops made up about 1 percent of the wheat area planted in the U.K. last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says. Fusarium can result in yield losses and cause the plant to produce mycotoxins, a chemical that’s harmful for humans and animals. National levels of the fungus were the highest this year since at least 1991, according to CropMonitor, a service run by government and industry groups.

“Fusarium is at levels that merchants have never seen before, and they’re unwilling to sell organic grain because the crops would probably fail,” Mason, who specializes in organic crops at NFU, said by phone from Stoneleigh, England on Sept. 21. “It’s quite an extreme circumstance.”

Organic Farming

In organic farming, artificial chemical fertilizers and genetically modified crops are prohibited and use of pesticides is “severely restricted,” according to the Soil Association, a Bristol, England-based non-profit group that sets standards and certifies organic food in the U.K.

Organic wheat seed normally costs farmers about 450 pounds ($727) a ton, and importing supplies from Europe may cost as much as 1,000 pounds, Mason said. There is “little to no” organic wheat seed in the U.K., she said.

Farmers may decide to import conventional seeds that haven’t been treated with chemicals for fusarium or other diseases at about 600 pounds a ton, Mason said. Some may risk using untreated conventional seeds produced in the U.K., which may be contaminated with fusarium, she said.

The price of milling wheat on NYSE Liffe in Paris, the European benchmark, has rallied 34 percent this year as dry weather hurt grain crops from Russia to the U.S. Feed wheat futures are up 33 percent this year in London. Farmers in the U.K. usually plant winter wheat in October, with the harvest starting in July.

U.K. Production

Combined U.K. wheat output may be as small as 13.8 million tons this season because of excess rain, Hamburg-based trader Alfred C. Toepfer International GmbH said Sept. 24. The U.K. estimates that total wheat production in the country, Europe’s third-largest grower, was about 15.257 million tons last season. Defra hasn’t released projections for this year’s harvest, and doesn’t segregate organic output from the total.

The U.K. had about 371 millimeters (14.6 inches) of rain in June, July and August, the most for any summer since 1912, and storms this week brought more than a month’s worth of moisture over two days, according to the Met Office. More than 400 properties across the country have flooded since Sept. 23, the U.K. Environment Agency said today.

About 656,000 hectares of land were in use for organic farming in the U.K. in 2011, down 8.7 percent from a year earlier, according to Defra. The U.K. had the fourth-highest organic land area in the European Union in 2010, behind Spain, Italy and Germany, according to Eurostat data. About 9.18 million hectares were planted that year in the 27-country bloc, the highest since at least 2005.

Organic farming takes up about 4 percent of all farmland in the U.K., and the food produced represents about 2 percent of the country’s grocery store sales, NFU’s Mason said.

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