NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Food sales fall for the first time

Posted on 08/09/2014 by Jim Orson

Last week the papers reported that for the first time since the monthly statistics were gathered (January 1989), the quantity of food sold in a particular month in GB fell when compared to the same month in the previous year. In July 2014 the quantity of food sold fell by 1.5% when compared to July 2013, sales were 1.3% down and food prices inflated by 0.2%. It’s interesting that food was the only section of retail to have higher prices in July 2014 compared to July 2013 (see Table).

There were more than a few column inches written about austerity and the lack of real wage increases being the cause of this first recorded fall in the volume of food bought. This may partially be the cause but there may also be other more positive explanations.

Some of the fall might be explained by a reduction in food waste and hopefully, this will have an impact on food sales in the future. Much has been made of the ‘best before’ dates increasing food waste and I am sure that they are understandably super-precautionary. My own experience suggests that yoghurts can be eaten a week after the ‘best- before’ dates with no ill effects! Another possible contribution to the fall in food volumes sold might be that we are eating less and hopefully better quality food because of the increasing concerns over obesity.

These newspaper articles encouraged me to look at the monthly reports on retail sales produced by the Office for National Statistics. Each report is huge with page after page of statistics and it is easy to be put off trying to read and understand it. However, there are very well written summaries for each retail sector and things become clearer after a while.

I picked up some interesting facts (well, they’re interesting to me!). In July 2014, for every pound spent in the whole of the retail industry (including online), £0.42 was spent in food stores, £0.41 in non-food stores, £0.06 pence in non-store retailing (e.g. mail order, catalogues and market stalls) and £0.11 in stores selling automotive fuel (i.e. petrol stations). This demonstrates that food still is the largest retail sector, but not by much. The only other of these main retail sectors to experience a fall in volumes over the year was ‘automotive fuel’ which fell by 4.7% (see Table). In fact the quantity of fuel sales seems to fall regularly, perhaps explaining the rapid loss of rural petrol stations.

Retail sales for GB, July 2014

Overall, online sales grew by over 11% over the last year. Only 3.7% of food sales were online in July 2014 compared to exactly two thirds of non-store retailing.

Food retailing seems to be in transition despite the relatively low proportion of online sales. The business sections of newspapers have all been giving the big food retailers advice on how to handle the fact that consumers are getting savvier and can now seem better able to work out if they are getting good value for their money. This means that consumers are becoming less loyal to one supermarket chain and as a consequence, they are less likely to do a ‘big shop’ at their previously favoured superstore. The supermarkets that are suffering are those that bridge the gap between the discounters (Aldi and Lidl) and the high end of the market (Waitrose and Marks & Spencer) [As an aside, I remember Alan Coren saying that Sainsbury’s existed to keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose]. A fall in the total volume of food sales is probably the last thing any food retailer needs, particularly those that are already suffering from decreased sales.

The general advice offered by the newspapers (as if they know best!) is that those supermarket companies that are stuck in the middle will have to become more price competitive and offer greater value. The papers also say that they will achieve this with lower margins and less spend on store refurbishment. Well, I hope that this is the case rather than further squeezing their suppliers. In many cases market prices for farmers are already below the cost of production and the room for a further squeeze on farm prices is just not there.

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If all else fails – do a trial

Posted on 28/08/2014 by Jim Orson

Is Woody Allen a genius who saw through the food police’s plot to stop us enjoying life? His 1973 film ‘Sleeper’ was about civilization 300 years hence and it derived great amusement from the 1970s trendy issue of not eating saturated fats. It seems he may well have been correct. An Israeli scientist has carried out a well designed and run trial which has shown that those on a diet that did not constrict the use of foods containing saturated fats lost more weight and ended up healthier than those on a Mediterranean diet or those on a low fat diet. Now the medics are lining up to explain why this result is plausible.Milk

Possibly this means that the decades I have spent consuming semi-skimmed milk and using vegetable oil-based  spreads rather than butter may have had the double whammy not only of me enjoying less the food I ate but also of it potentially doing me harm. My wife is also impressed with the evidence from the trial and there is now blue-topped milk in the fridge along with a more packs of butter. Life is already better.

Sugar is the real ‘enemy’ in diets. It is clear that in many cases the ‘low-fat’ alternatives are stuffed full with sugar in order to replace the role of fats in making a tasty and stable product.  

If these results are to be believed it shows that we have all been misled by theories based on limited or incomplete knowledge because nobody carried out trials. In all realms of life we might benefit from doing more trials. Development economists and social scientists are increasingly doing more trials which often provide answers that, at first, sound counter-intuitive. However, real progress has been made when the results of these trials are analysed and are used to form the foundation for new strategies.

Luckily, arable agriculture has a long history of field trials. Hopefully, these are well designed and executed and the results analysed and interpreted for the benefit of the industry. I suppose this usually occurs but there are exceptions, usually at the analysis and interpretation stage.

There was the classic misinterpretation of the recent HGCA-funded trials on the use of micronutrients in wheat production. I hasten to say this misinterpretation was not done by HGCA or the scientists doing the trial. I’m not sure whose fault it was but it is clear that farmers are being told that on average there was an economic response.

In fact this was disingenuous. In the fifteen trials that were carried out, each measuring the impact of three different micronutrients, there were only two responses out of 45 comparisons and these would have been expected from soil analyses. In the remaining situations there were no responses but there was inevitably the variation that occurs in biological systems. This variation meant that there were small numerical but not statistically significant decreases in yields from the use of micronutrients in some trials and these were almost exactly matched by small numerical increases in other trials.

The disingenuous interpretation was that on average the ‘responses’ would have paid for the input. I talked more fully about the results in my blog ‘Micronutrients fail the ‘common sense’ test’ published in October last year.

Then there is the situation where the results of trials are clear but they are ignored because they do not confirm current theories. This is reminiscent of attitudes in the Dark Ages. I know that  I’ve said this many times before but it is absolutely clear from all the data that have been generated over the past 20 years that the efficiency of use of soil mineral nitrogen by wheat is not the 100% that is assumed in ‘official ‘ recommendation systems. The figure is more like 50%.

The assumption of 100% efficiency means that, currently in ‘RB209 – The Fertiliser Manual’, for every increase in N index from 1 to 3 the amount of applied N recommended falls by 30 kg/ha. I have been told that one reason for not adopting a system that more closely reflects reality is that it is too complicated. Well I hate to disagree because all that is required is to reduce the recommendation by 15 kg/ha rather than 30 kg/ha. It is certainly not rocket science.

Going back to diets, I just wonder if the new information challenging the low fat culture will reflect on the popularity of a coffee option in Australia. There is the ‘why bother latte’ which consists of organic decaffeinated coffee, fully-skimmed milk and no sugar. Are its days numbered?

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Hope versus fear

Posted on 22/08/2014 by Jim Orson

I read recently, possibly in the Farmer’s Weekly, that a Scottish farmer said their Independence Referendum is a choice between hope and fear. Thinking about it, I suppose it was always going to be so. The ‘yes’ campaign is bound to be espousing their hopes for an independent Scotland and the ‘no’ campaign is bound to be expressing their fears. The art is to try to identify whether the hopes and fears expressed are realistic or unrealistic.

There are choices between hopes and fears to be made in arable agriculture, particularly at a time when market prices are less than the cost of production. As an aside, I am slightly amused that I have yet to hear from a farmer who has not sold a substantial proportion of this year’s cereal harvest a few months ago when market prices were considerably higher!

I am sorry to fall on familiar territory but many farmers’ approaches to black-grass control over the last few years have been based more on unrealistic hope than realistic fear. I gave talks a few years ago where the farmer audience seemed hostile to my concerns over future control. There is no doubt that it is easier to ‘sell’ hope rather than fear.

I remember one particular meeting where farmers appeared to be convinced that more competitive varieties were the answer to the impending crisis. I explained that if such varieties behaved consistently in reducing black-grass seed shed by 25-50% then the herbicide control required in order to stand still in black-grass plant numbers was only reduced from 97% to 95-94%. It was clear that they did not want to believe me.

However, the maths of black-grass control only shows the huge challenge for cultural control. By the way, varieties vary between years in their relative competiveness against black-grass; there is no consistency. Indeed, the lack of consistency of cultural measures is a major issue but it is clear that when you are in the mire with black-grass, increasing crop competitiveness is not sufficient alone to turn the tide. Perhaps the most consistent and effective cultural control measure is spring cropping but even then, in 2013, there was a huge black-grass emergence in some spring drilled crops.

There have been unrealistic fears expressed over the cultural control measures of ploughing and growing spring barley on heavy soils. The doubt expressed about ploughing is that it will destroy the soil structure built up over the years by non-inversion tillage to about 20cm depth. The evidence produced by NIAB TAG’s NAC STAR project, on medium clay in Suffolk, suggests that in crop yield terms this is not a concern.

The other fear is that it is impossible to establish consistently spring barley on heavy soils. As I said in my previous blog (Climate and rotation), this year was particularly challenging in this respect but the machinery now available is better able to establish great spring barley crops. I have to admit that spring cropping on heavy soils is always going to be more risky than early autumn drilling but the level of fear in some farmers’ eyes is perhaps too high.  

Many farmers have now given up realistic hope of continuing with early drilled continuous autumn cropping established after non-inversion tillage. Personally I am convinced that to get to a more stable situation there is a need on many infested farms to reduce dramatically background black-grass populations by taking radical cultural control options rather than hoping to manage moderate populations from year to year. The realistic fear, even with a huge expenditure, is that chemical and cultural control measures will not be consistent from year to year and the economic consequences of a moderate population not being controlled are very significantly higher than a low population not being controlled. In addition, herbicides give higher levels of control of black-grass heads in low populations when compared to moderate populations.

So whilst we have to give up realistic hopes, at least over the next few years, of being able to control black-grass in rotations that consist only of early autumn drilled crops, perhaps the fears associated with some cultural control measures are unrealistically pessimistic.     


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Climate and rotation

Posted on 13/08/2014 by Jim Orson

My final pre-harvest prediction of wheat yields was superseded by the actual harvest! As expected, yields are exceptionally high in some areas. The reported variable yields must in part be explained by the variation in June rainfall, which was a result of localised storms rather than frontal rain. Solar radiation in June and July was well above average and temperatures were not too high until the very end of ripening.

It was on a recent and beautiful sunny Sunday morning that I noticed that my neighbour’s leylandii hedge appeared to be dying. The Cambridge Council tree officer was kind enough to visit and said it was due to the high number of aphids that had survived the exceptionally warm winter. Apparently, this is the worst year in living memory for such damage. So, my neighbour and I have sprayed thrice with a legal neonicitinoid, but there may be lasting damage to the hedge.

Is this a result of a warming climate? There are other clues in our garden. For instance, this is also the first year that I have had to spray my zonal pelargoniums (geraniums) against rust. From a personal point of view, after a shower my hair now dries three or four time more quickly than when I was a teenager, but my wife diplomatically points out that there could possibly be less of it.

The mild winter has had its impact on UK agriculture. The challenge from yellow rust in wheat has been exceptionally high. The only compensation is that there appears to be no resistance in yellow rust to the major groups of fungicide used on wheat. The mild winter and early drilling may also have contributed to the difficulty in controlling triazole-resistant septoria in wheat. All this has resulted in more flexible and expensive fungicide programmes, banging a further nail in the coffin of the old (T0), T1, T2 and T3 approach.

One problem with the exceptionally mild winter was that there was little or no frost tilth present on the heavy soils when the spring crops were sown. This problem was magnified by the fact that it was extremely wet in the early spring and, in many areas, when it eventually turned dry there was little further rain in the following two months to support crop establishment. In the ‘old days’ this could have been disastrous because the seedbed cultivations would have dried out the soil resulting in poor and slow crop germination. In fact, this is what happened in some cases this year when a combi-drill was used. However, where the crops were established into autumn cultivated land with a single-pass disc or with a disc direct drill the germination, establishment and initial growth was superb despite the very dry March and April.

This experience is great in order to convince those farmers who are knee deep in black-grass to consider adopting spring cereals in order to break its life cycle. Possibly one of the reasons for their reluctance is the memory of trying to establish a spring cereal crop in conditions similar to this year. The thing is that equipment has changed dramatically since they may last have tried to do it, and now we have better machines for the job. These make spring-sown cereals a much more resilient and sustainable cultural control option. I must admit that I am not a ‘tyre-kicker’ and this is perhaps the full extent of my knowledge on drills, but I think that I have made my point.

Talking of difficulties with drilling and crop establishment, we’ve just had a visit from a NZ farmer who reports the trauma they have recently been going through whilst trying to establish autumn-sown cereals and small-seeded crops.

They have had exceptionally wet and dull conditions for months. Lack of sun resulted in disappointing wheat yields and the rain meant a difficult and delayed harvest. In the main area on the Canterbury Plains, especially on heavy soils, there have been few small-seeded seed crops and winter wheat crops established in their autumn. Some crops that were sown have failed. The only realistic option for many farmers in this part of the world is now spring barley.  

It is their worst late summer and autumn for arable farming in living memory and confirms that we are not the only ones who suffer from prolonged periods of extreme weather.  Such events plus that of pesticide resistance and pesticide withdrawals mean that farming and the supply industries must adjust to a more flexible approach.  In the UK, sowing spring crops on heavy soil is now part of that desired flexibility. The old certainties seem to be disappearing.

NZ Canterbury Plain - autumn drilling 2014

June on the Canterbury Plains in New Zealand. This is a time of year when fields should be green with vegetable seed crops, grass seed crops or winter wheat. The grass margins provide a firm base for the passage of linear boom irrigation equipment along the field (when needed!!!).

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Black-grass, the year of the double whammy

Posted on 22/07/2014 by Jim Orson

Our garden and allotment are now in full production and currently we do not have to buy any vegetables. This weekend we ate our first tomatoes and the first aubergines are a few days away. We really enjoy gardening but over the years I have often considered whether producing our own vegetables is economically worthwhile. This is particularly so when my wife has to struggle with a dirty and misshapen parsnip when the local corner store (Waitrose) can provide washed and perfectly shaped roots!

It is with this in mind that I recently studied the price of vegetables in the local corner store whilst sipping my free coffee. After a while I came to the conclusion that it was worth growing the basics such as potatoes, lettuce, onions, shallots, leeks, parsnips, broad, French and runner beans, butternut squash and courgettes. However, things like tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies are our loss leaders particularly when we have to take into account one of our daughters or a neighbour having to water the greenhouse when we are away. I even have to hand-pollinate the aubergines with a paint brush and yet you can buy a large and perfect example for around 70p.

This is a microcosm of world trade in food. Grow what you are best at and import the rest. UK heavy land farmers can grow wheat competitively because of high potential yields. However, to exploit this potential we have to apply a high level of inputs.

Perhaps I am biased but it was the introduction of herbicides such as isoproturon that set the foundation for exploiting this high yield potential. Not only did it allow us to grow more wheat on the land most suited to its production but also to use non-inversion tillage and to sow earlier. Early sowing has three advantages; it enables a longer drilling window (so spreading machinery costs), in many cases it results in a higher yield potential and it also helps to ensure that the operation is carried out in good soil conditions.

Black-grassIt cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that this foundation for exploiting our potential for wheat production is now being undermined by herbicide resistance in black-grass. The industry has no option but to take this on board. No longer do farmers believe that high herbicide use and a minimum of cultural measures will overcome the problems they are encountering. There is a realisation that two or even three years of spring cropping (plus herbicide use) may be required to get some populations under control.

Amongst all the gloom, it is worth bearing in mind that this year we may have suffered a bit of a double whammy with black-grass populations. The epically cold and wet summer of 2012 resulted in high levels of dormancy and a very significant proportion of the black-grass seed shed in that year would not have germinated until the autumn of 2013. The summer of 2013 was conducive to low dormancy which meant that a very high proportion of the black-grass seed shed last year would also germinate last autumn. This helps to explain the rather unbelievably high numbers of black-grass that emerged after early drilling last autumn.

We are not alone in having pesticide resistance challenging the most economic production methods developed when the pesticides were working effectively. I have mentioned before that in Ireland, which has the highest average wheat yields in the world, there is caution in sowing a very high proportion of wheat in the rotation because of the danger of fungicide-resistant septoria dramatically reducing yields. In Australia, the measures required to control herbicide resistant rye-grass (Lolium rigidum) have had an enormous impact on rotations. A visiting Australian consultant told me at the weekend that the attention to detail required has made them better farmers. I am sure the same will be true for black-grass control in the UK but try telling that to the bank manager.

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