Another Dry Summer Ahead Threatens UK Wheat and Potato Supply

As we sit in the middle of this unprecedented snap of warm weather in the UK, it seems an apt time to consider extreme weather conditions, and whether this year might see trends similar to those of last summer affecting supply chains.

Early predictions, according to Cervest's Chief Business Officer Mark Hodgson, suggest a repeat of last year's hot weather-related events. He has some advice to help mitigate risk, increase operational efficiency and reduce costs this summer.

Early analysis suggests that this summer is going to bring similar hot, dry spells to those experienced in 2018, putting similar pressure on yields and crop supplies. Farmers and buyers need to put measures in place now to anticipate and mitigate the risks. Last summer, daytime temperatures in some parts of the UK consistently topped 30C throughout June, July and August, making it the joint-hottest summertime since records began. With little or no summer rainfall, 2018 was one of the toughest years on record for farmers and buyers alike.

The recent Climate Coalition report, backed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, states that British potato crops are among those most at risk from climate change, with last summer’s prolonged drought conditions highlighted as evidence. In 2018, a dry spring, followed by a lack of rainfall during the critical June period of crop growth led to a 20% slump in potato yields. The result was smaller potatoes, and that is not good news. The hot summer also resulted in a 40% drop in the onion harvest and a 25%-30% dip in carrot supplies. Grain harvests were also down, with wheat decreasing 6% on 2017, while spring barley declined 6.7%, according to government reports.**

The intense dry conditions of 2018 were experienced across Europe and the impact of climate change is making the occurrence of these extreme weather events as much as 30 times more likely.* These patterns and the knock-on effect they have on our food chain underline the dangers of taking food production for granted – especially when 60% of food consumed in Britain is domestically produced. It is clear that we need greater certainty and predictability of our domestic production, particularly as we enter a post-Brexit future. Farmers are under increasing pressure of profits through greater costs and a levelling/lowering of output. Meanwhile, for suppliers, the burden of decision making for procurement, sustainability and risk teams has never been greater as climate volatility increases.

So, the question now for farmers and buyers is: are you prepared for what is likely to be a repeat performance?

There are a variety of sensible measures farmers and buyers are considering, putting into practice last year’s learnings and adapting, as well as weighing up more financially intensive measures such as crop change, or new more climate-resistant strains. These are big decisions, and the challenge is taking them with the highest possible degree of confidence, particularly if it means significant adaptation, for example through re-contracting, insuring your business differently or crop mix changes – they cannot afford to get it wrong.

However, any decision can be taken more confidently and the resulting actions made even earlier in the season if you have early-warning signals specific to your farm or sourcing region.

Cervest is one of the firms offering that capability: last year its monitoring of UK soil across East Anglia picked up early warnings in May of an expected 50% decrease in soil moisture. It then predicted the impact this would have on yields. This information, along with other climatic and agronomic early yield indicators is vital for managing risk on the farm. These early signals are also invaluable for buyers. In 2018 it predicted yields of winter soft wheat for one of the UK’s top biscuit makers several months before harvest with 99% accuracy – insight that would enable them to secure their supplies with minimal stress and mitigate the risks associated with supply shocks.

By accessing accurate climate-based predictions earlier, producers and buyers can mitigate risk, increase operational efficiency and reduce costs in several ways:

  • Monitor hyperlocal weather impacts: high-quality, location-specific weather forecasting with short, medium and long-range outlooks.
  • Easily compare yield between / with other farmers in the same region, to establish what might be behind the differences
  • Think about pricing earlier: contracting earlier and more accurately, helping to reduce operational costs, based on best crop mix
  • Adjust buyer insurance sooner based on more accurate predictions

Armed with climate-based predictions, producers can also:

  • Improve productivity: Tracking crops from planting to harvest with automated daily yield predictions with early warnings, expected output and quality indicators to help manage the season.
  • Troubleshoot: Via field-level crop health monitoring using advanced imagery, enabling them to identify potential crop issues from their mobile, then investigate on the ground.
  • Profile their fields: Maintaining an ongoing digital farm profile for multiple fields and crops and rack activity related to preparation, planting and harvesting – all in one place.
  • Work better with their crop supplier(s): Better informed, they can discuss the right actions for them and their farm.

Equally, buyers can:

  • Take early supply decisions and keep other stakeholders informed.
  • Build multi-season ‘what if’ planning: Simulation and scenario planning tools highlight natural capital fluctuations – from water and land-use to climatic variations – that impact yield.


** Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – National Statistics – 20 December 2018

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Spend Matters.

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