The UK's disastrous wheat harvest, the worst for at least 20 years, comes at a bad time for the global food chain. For more than a decade we have been net exporters of wheat – last year we exported 250,000 tons to the US for animal feed – but this year we will be scrambling for imported supplies.
While the UK is only No 14 in the global production league – the biggest producers being China, India and the US – the problems here come at a time when global cereal production looks like it will be 2 to 3 per cent down on last year.
The US has had a dreadful maize crop. As a result there are fears that the world might experience a similar spike in food prices as happened in 2007-08.
Food and particularly grain supplies are under pressure from three sources. Rising population is the obvious one, for we went from the seven billion mark late last year and are projected to reach eight billion by 2025. But in recent years additional pressure has come from the use of food to produce biofuels, mostly bioethanol from maize or sugar cane and biodiesel from vegetable oils. Maize used to fuel cars is maize not available for food, either for animals or humans. Under US law some 40 per cent of the US crop is to be used for biofuel, one of the reasons why last year they were buying our wheat.
The third shift is less obvious: the rise of eating meat. Grain fed to an animal ultimately produces fewer calories than grain consumed directly by a human. China's rising wealth has encouraged a rapid shift in diet, and while grain production has also risen strongly, rising demand for meat shows no sign of checking. The result is a race.
Last year was a record for global grain production. But we need records every year to meet this three-pronged rise in demand.