We used to regard Russian agriculture as a basket case. No longer. Some will remember that year after year, the speculation was how much wheat would Russia need to import, as its own wheat production consistently fell below national needs.
Inevitably, the so-called “great grain robbery” of 1973 was dragged into the conversation when Russia organised a buying coup that gathered up 10 million tonnes of US grain, mostly wheat, without the American administration being aware until the deals had been completed. World prices rocketed and the US, for the only time, imposed an export ban on soya.
Fast forward to today and Russia has undergone incredible change. Not surprisingly we focus in on the awful suffering and destruction in Ukraine, but agriculturally Ukraine is much more important as an oilseed producer than as a producer of wheat.
Certainly Ukraine is important in wheat, but with Russia producing over 85 million tonnes, it dwarfs the Ukrainian output of 25 million tonnes. Russia also exports 39 million tonnes and is now the biggest wheat exporter in the world. Ukraine exports 16 million tonnes.
What Russia does in the wheat trade is hugely significant. Since Russia became a serious exporter following the privatisation of its agriculture, it has changed its policies on wheat exports on numerous occasions with total export bans to export taxes to total liberalisation.
Coupled with the sheer volume of wheat production, its dominance in natural gas for nitrogen fertiliser as well as the reserves of potash it shares with its neighbour and ally Belarus, we have as farmers an impossibly unpredictable trading environment.
While European governments including Ireland have stepped in to cushion the effects of wild energy price fluctuations on consumers, there has been no talk of similar moves to give farmers any kind of similar treatment. While the general public may be indifferent to threats facing farmers, policymakers cannot ignore the declining state of world food security. (See graphic from Seed Association meetings.)
Over the last 10 days or so, the Irish Seed Association has been running a series of astonishingly well attended seminars for cereal growers.