By John Vidal
and Heather Stewart
06 September, 2003
prolonged heatwave has devastated crops across Europe, leaving some
countries facing their worst harvests since the end of the second world
The searing weather, especially in central and eastern Europe, has forced
countries that usually export food to import it for the first time in
decades. Several, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, are experiencing
rising food prices and the UN is warning this will have a severe impact
According to the
UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), wheat output in the EU
is expected to be millions of tonnes down on last year, with much greater
losses in southern Europe than in the north.
France has also
been severely hit, and is expected to lose more than 20% of its grain
harvests. Italy is expected to lose 13% of its wheat, Britain 12% and
other countries 5%-10%. In Britain, one immediate effect is likely to
be a 7p rise in the price of a loaf, retailers said.
In Ukraine, once
known as the breadbasket of Russia, the wheat crop fell to 5m tonnes
this year, a 75% decrease on normal years.
In Moldova, 40%
of the wheat area has reportedly been decimated and harvests are down
80%. According to the FAO, which has sent a mission to assess the emergency,
losses are being been compared to those of 1945, the worst harvest in
Across the EU, wheat
production is down 10m tonnes, about 10%.
"In some parts
it's pretty bad," said Henri Josserand, head of the FAO's early
warning system, which forecasts harvests and predicts where food may
be scarce. "Some countries will have to import a lot more than
usual. Their import bills will go up significantly."
He warned that floods
similar to those that caused devastation in Germany two years ago are
likely to hit parts of Europe shortly. "These are now ideal conditions
for serious flash flooding because the capacity for the ground to absorb
water is very low."
The UN figures,
released yesterday, mirror those of the world's two leading crop monitors.
The US department of agriculture last week cut its forecast for this
year's global grain harvest by 32m tonnes, mainly because of Europe's
extreme weather. The International Grains Council, an intergovernmental
organisation, believes the world harvest will be even lower.
A report from the
Worldwatch Institute in Washington, in cooperation with the UN Environment
Programme, paints a bleak picture of the intense weather continuing
to devastate farming. Last year was the third time in four years that
global wheat, rice and maize production failed to meet demand, forcing
governments and food companies to release stocks from storage. This
week India released 50% of its food stocks, partly as a result of intense
heat and then floods in some states.
Lester Brown, the
head of Worldwatch, an independent research organisation, predicted
that prices would rocket in the next few months: "The heatwave
came at a time when world food supplies were already at their most precarious
ever. The amount of grain produced for each person on earth is now less
than at any time in more than three decades."
But although 38
countries are experiencing food emergencies, the UN does not believe
there will be overall food shortages this year.
food supply is on an upward trend," said Mr Josserand. "But
just because the world is doing OK, it doesn't mean that in some areas
the situation is not severe. Southern Africa, especially Zimbabwe, is
still in real difficulty."
country that has done better than ever this year is Afghanistan, where
the cereal crop will be the largest on record, due in large part to
good rainfall and better access to seeds and fertilisers.
In Britain, British
Bakeries, which produces Hovis and Mother's Pride, has warned retailers
that it will put its wholesale prices up by 15% because of the rising
cost of flour. The British Retail Consortium said margins on bread were
already so slim that much of the cost - 6p to 7p a loaf - was likely
to be added to the price.
Consumers in eastern
Europe could be harder hit. For the poorest countries, many of which
spend up to half of their foreign exchange earnings on importing grain
from the west, the result could be burgeoning balance of payments deficits,
according to Kevin Watkins, of Oxfam. He said the reduced harvest was
also likely to cut donations of food aid to developing countries.