Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Hard bread and fair weather bread

Dear readers,

During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, consumer demand for flour exploded. Everyone wanted to bake bread at home. Flour and yeast were hard to find on supermarket shelves. In fact, the website recommends a type of bread that can be made without flour. But that’s not to everyone’s taste.

Then came the chilly, wet summer of 2021. Fields were ravaged by mold. In Switzerland, wheat was hit especially hard. In some regions, as much as 90 percent of the harvest had to be downgraded because of poor quality. Wheat that is downgraded can be used only for livestock feed. The downgrading happened for two reasons of equal importance: inadequate hectoliter weight (a common quality measure) and premature germination. The wheat also had to be downgraded because of an infestation of mycotoxins (carcinogenic fungus).The consequence for consumers was that it became necessary to raise import quotas for bread grains. As a result of the poor grain harvest in Switzerland in 2021, supplies of bread grains of a quality suitable for bread making declined by 30 percent. In addition to the top classes of wheat for bread making, organic grains and spelt were lacking as well. The need to increase imports reflects a general trend in Europe. The EU and Switzerland contribute little to feeding global food supplies. The EU imports 11 percent more calories than it exports to other regions of the world. So it is contributing nothing to ensure the security of the world's food supply. And the planned Green Deal policy initiatives will make it an even bigger importer.

Then war broke out in Ukraine. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global wheat supplies. Consumers are paying more for bread. Some granaries in Ukraine are still full of wheat, but raw materials can no longer be exported due to the Black Sea blockade. According to the United Nations, the war has prevented almost 25 million tons of already harvested grains from being transported out of the country.

For farmers, this means: no income, which in turn leaves them unable to buy the seeds, pesticides, and diesel fuel needed to prepare for the 2023 harvest, as Josef Schmidhuber of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explained on SRF International. Because agriculture is credit-financed the drop in sales as a result of the war and inadequate logistics resources will continue to reverberate like a shock wave in the future. The international community must therefore ensure the continued availability of credits. Otherwise, the global supply situation will worsen.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said “Ukraine grows food for 400 million people. The World Food Programme buys 50 percent of its grain from Ukraine, which allows us to feed 125 million people.” The war is having a dramatic impact on worldwide food prices, as the FAO Food Price Index shows: In the last year, average worldwide food prices rose by almost 50 percent compared to 2020.

Egypt is particularly affected by the food supply crisis. In an article in Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said, “We are in the midst of the worst crisis in the last hundred years.” And the war in Ukraine is threatening the security of the food supply throughout all of Africa.

But - the wheat crisis is not over yet. A heat wave in India is intensifying the international supply crisis. The harvest in India is expected to decline by about six percent. We already referred to this in the last newsletter. In response, India – the world’s second largest producer of wheat – announced it would stop exporting wheat. Although India included some exceptions to the ban, it resulted in another shock for global markets. And India can't replace the food supplies that have been interrupted as a result of the war in Ukraine. Swiss broadcaster Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF) has also reported on the crisis. However, NZZ has reported growing optimism that the wheat harvests in countries like Australia and Brazil will prove to be adequate to replenish the reserves that have been affected by the war.

On the whole, droughts are occurring more frequently around the world and lasting longer than in the past. The drought that took place from 2018 to 2020 was the worst in the last 250 years. This is the finding of researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. As a result of climate change, future droughts could last for as long as 20 years, which would have profound consequences for agriculture and the world’s food supply. About one-third of the population of the African continent lives without reliable access to water. The United Nations reports that even in regions of Africa with significant water resources there is little supply security. Europe has been affected as well. One example is Italy, where the Po River has dwindled to a trickle in places, and the region’s rice is drying up. German broadcaster ZDF has reported on the causes of the problem.

All of this is driving prices higher. But farmers still face difficulties at the moment. Although production prices have risen sharply, farmers are seeing little of the higher prices that consumers are paying in stores. Swiss magazine BauernZeitung has reported on this in several articles. And the Swiss Farmers’ Union says that a third of the added costs are not yet covered. As the summer of 2021 showed, grain crops are prone to disease when conditions are wet. This is especially true when crop protection products are not used. Wheat can only be grown successfully without the use of pesticides when the weather is good – and even then it is questionable. But relying on the weather isn't a viable plan. Bread remains one of the world’s staple foods, and it cannot be allowed to become a luxury product. Millions of people depend on it. It needs to be mold-free and affordable. Given the supply shortages, stable regional production continues to be important as well. As the current energy strategy shows there are limits to a strategy that relies solely on imports. After all, as the old saying goes, “Old bread isn’t hard. Having no bread at all is hard.”

Farmers’ wheat yield is shrinking not only because of the weather, but because of political decisions as well. Among other things, Switzerland's Extenso wheat program and organic farming have both led to a decline in yields. Dependency on foreign suppliers is increasing. In the EU, the extensive production approach is being fostered as part the European Green Deal. This has also led to lower agricultural yields, falling incomes for farmers, and a reduction in land for farming. At the same time, the EU is importing more agricultural goods, and consumers are paying higher prices. Moreover, land use is increasing in the rest of the world. This has been confirmed by several studies.

The fungal infestation was a major problem for winemakers as well. As Jakob Stark of the Swiss Council of States wrote in BauernZeitung, this resulted in a strange situation in Schaffhausen. Neighboring winemakers in Germany were able to use a new fungicide, while some of their Swiss counterparts faced total failure. The fungicide has not yet been approved for use because of the sluggish Swiss authorization process. The yield losses on the Swiss side were significant. And they weren't limited to just one particular pesticide. Approval of highly selective and thus more environmentally-friendly pesticides has effectively been placed on hold. A number of new products have been pending with the authorities for years or have been held up by the right of appeal of Swiss associations.

At the same time, an increasing number of crop protection products have been removed from the market. These products are indispensable for crops such as rapeseed, sugar beets, and a number of vegetable varieties. And there are no alternatives to them in most cases. Many farmers no longer know how to adequately protect their crops. But the problem could easily be solved: A great deal would be achieved if Switzerland would recognize the EU approval of new active ingredients and products. After all, it is ironic that Swiss authorities accept EU decisions that call for withdrawing authorization for crop protection products, but not decisions that approve such products.

For now, it is important to ensure there is a sound scientific basis for restrictions on the use of crop protection products. In their publication “Datengrundlage und Kriterien für eine Einschränkung der PSM-Auswahl im ÖLN” (Data basis and criteria for limiting the range of crop protection products in the Proof of Ecological Performance (PEP)) from September 2020, Agroscope Science provided an in-depth analysis of the lack of alternatives to the listed active ingredients. The analysis shows where there are gaps in the limited range of products and the consequences for agriculture when products are not used.

While for some the disruption of wheat supplies is a threat to their livelihood, others see gluten-free food as more important, even individuals who do not have allergies. “Nutrition and dietary concerns are becoming a kind of religion,” said Professor Thomas Ellrott in his comments to swisscofel, an industry association. Postmodernism talks about the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. There are also contradictory developments. While there is a push to promote the consumption of organic food, in Switzerland the consumption of organic meat has declined. This is clearly as well related to price. And this trend is a reminder that sustainability has a social component as well. If people cannot afford to buy so-called “sustainable” products, we face a situation that is itself not sustainable. This also applies to government agriculture policies. There is nothing ethical about policies that require a lack of productivity and accepts crop failures. Even if the hunger is occurring elsewhere.

Speaking of bread, a tried and tested recipe for homemade bread is the “no-knead bread” that food journalist Mark Bittman of The New York Times shared in 2006. The editorial department recently updated the recipe. It calls for 430 grams of flour, an indispensable ingredient.

The swiss-food editorial team

The swiss-food platform provides information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It is committed to providing factual information and promoting large-scale sustainability.
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