I don’t believe it!

20 Dec 2012

Jim reaches his half century - the 50th Orson's Oracle

I don’t want to sound like Victor Meldrew but I don’t believe it!  We’d travelled halfway round the world and taken several internal flights around New Zealand and it had all gone like clockwork.  We get back exhausted to King’s Cross and the overhead lines are down in the Hitchin area, arriving back in Cambridge two hours later than we should have.

I went to the very south of NZ’s South Island on one of the internal flights, meeting a farmer with exceptionally high wheat yields but only average yields of oilseed rape. Rape has only been grown there over recent years to supply a bio-diesel plant. The plant is only used to crush oilseeds.

The discrepancy between wheat yields and oilseed rape yields in different countries is intriguing.  The poorer the wheat yields, seemingly the higher the relative yield of oilseed rape. I became aware of this issue when I visited Eastern Europe a few years ago.

In Poland, between 2006 and 2010, the average oilseed rape yield was only 29% lower than that of wheat, with wheat averaging less than 4 t/ha. In the UK and Ireland, we have high average wheat yields with rape yielding around 60% lower. In Germany, wheat yields are not as high as here, averaging 7.5 t/ha, and rape yields are about 50% lower. In the more extreme climates of Canada and Australia, rape yields are only around 30% lower than those of wheat.Oilseed rape

I’m not going to pretend to know all the reasons for this. However, lower wheat yields are often because of drought and/or heat during grain fill. Oilseed rape is earlier maturing and its key yield determining growth stages are earlier in the summer when it is likely to be less hot and dry. I recognise that this is rather simplistic and there could be other explanations.

Whilst flying around New Zealand, I was rather horrified to see the amount of land devoted to so-called lifestyle plots. These comprise a few acres and a very nice modern house. The land is used for horses or trees and does not seem to contribute much to food production. The local farmers are generally against lifestyle plots, unless, of course, they get planning permission for them. I agree that they’re difficult to justify at a time when there is concern over future food supplies.

However, this issue is not confined to New Zealand. Our Peterborough Council wants to cover 99 acres of prime fenland with solar panels. Gone are the days when the Soil Survey graded land ostensibly to ensure that the best land is not used for development. I’d better sign off before the Victor Meldrew part of me comes to the fore.

Best wishes for Christmas and 2013.