Bread prices: will the drought get us in trouble?

War in Ukraine, energy crisis, persistent global inflation and now, drought. In the superbingo of the receipt, bread is one of those essentials – remember that the French are biologically made up of 90% water and crumbs – the price of which has recently increased. After several particularly dry months, “Winter crops, such as wheat or barley, which are currently in the development phase, are beginning to experience situations that will affect yields”, warned Monday, May 9 the Ministry of Agriculture. Drought “will have an impact on cereal production”he added, without yet being able to determine the extent.

At a time when refueling is becoming a luxury and where finding a bottle of sunflower oil recalls the darkest hours of Pokémon hunting, will global warming and its consequences on agriculture also of the passage to the bakery a test?

On average, in France, this month of April recorded a 25% rainfall deficit. At the end of a dry winter which, in many regions, did not make it possible to recharge the water tables,n the wheat fields, this drought comes at the worst time. Since the beginning of May and until June it is played for a while “crucial for grain nourishment”explained to franceinfo Joël Limouzin, the vice-president of the FNSEA and president of the Vendée chamber of agriculture.

Because the conditions of today are the harvest of tomorrow, supports Serge Zaka, agroclimatologist within the company ITK, specialized in the application of artificial intelligence to agriculture. It describes the key stages in the growth of the wheat plant, all of which are essential: “The first phase determines the number of ears on the plant. The second, the number of grains on each ear. Finally, the last phase determines the size of these grains”, he summarizes. For them to grow, “the plant drains organic matter into the soil and, for this drainage to take place, it needs water to circulate it”. Who says lack of water, also says sacrifice, the plant abandoning ears to devote itself to the survival of another. In agricultural language: a loss of yield.

Ears of wheat on a farm in Valence, in the Drôme, on May 21, 2020.   (NICOLAS GUYONNET / HANS LUCAS / AFP)

Gold, “After June 15, the yield is fixed. Even if it rains, it’s too late”, he points out. Already, simulations and testimonials from farmers, many of whom share their daily lives on social networks, report yield losses of 5 to 10% on the shallowest soils – which can contain less water –, notes the specialist. “Within ten days, we will have about 10% yield losses on the deeper soils as well. And in the event of a drought that lasts until June, the worst-case scenario, these losses could reach 40%”, fears Serge Zaka. Worse, this drought threatens “all soft wheat production areas [qui sert essentiellement à la boulangerie] to Poland, which is a large part of the European harvest”.

Fortunately, “the price of wheat is fixed on the international market according not to the drought in France or in Western Europe, but according to the global climatic conditions”, notes the economist Christian de Perthuis. Thus, regional climatic or geopolitical vagaries, such as this drought or the consequences of the war in Ukraine, can be offset on a planetary scale by good yields in other regions of the world. “The market is made by the confrontation of a global supply with exporters on the one hand and, on the other, a demand which also evolves according to the harvest conditions of the big importers”continues the founder of the Climate Economics Chair at the Sorbonne.

“What Météo France says for the next three weeks is not what makes the price of wheat.”

Christian de Perthuis, economist

at franceinfo

We were already seeing a rise in prices even before the “Ukraine effect”, continues the specialist. World Bank says wheat could cost $370 a tonne in 2024, up 59% from 2020. The price of the baguette, it increases much less quickly, and continuously, according to the statements of INSEE. In March 2022, a kilo of baguette bread cost 3.66 euros, i.e. 9 cents more than in March 2021. Four years earlier, it was 3.49 euros.

To contain this increase, it is for the moment the bakers who are tightening their belts: the network of Ange bakeries has decided to keep the baguette at 1 euro, while a Breton baker, interviewed by France 2, has chosen to give up the packaging to offset the cost of the flour. In Paris, a bakery has raised its prices, but without touching the iconic baguette, reports The Parisian.

Food: bakers fighting against rising prices
France 2

A rise which, although “multifactorial”is “partly linked to climatic events”, remember Christian de Perthuis. “Like what happened in Canada last year. Remember that record heat?” When Western Canada flirted with 50°C at the very end of July and entire towns went up in smoke? Yes. “Well, the country’s harvest was down almost a third, which was only partially offset by very good harvests in Australia,” continues the economist.

In its updated forecast as of May 6, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, “still expects global wheat production to grow this year.” But this observation hides several problems. The first: this year, it is in Russia that the conditions are the best, even though access to this production is compromised due to the conflict in Ukraine. The second: the United States and the EU are experiencing drought conditions, with production only stabilizing thanks to the increase in the area sown. However, using more surface area to produce the same quantity is not really in line with the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, how long before global warming massively affects crops in various places on the planet?

In its latest report, the IPCC confirms that the rise in the average temperature in the world will be accompanied by a multiplication and intensification of extreme events, in particular droughts, in several regions of the globe.

Conversely, intense precipitation phenomena must also accompany global warming: another calamity for crops, “which need light to moderate rainfall, which falls over time and percolates through the soil”, explains Serge Zaka. For the specialist, agriculture must use all possible levers to adapt, from increased attention to soil conservation to the evolution of species and varieties of plants grown in the territories.

Another threat to the raw material, and therefore to these future prices: energy. “The price of wheat is around 10 to 15% of the price of bread”shade Christian de Perthuis, which recalls that the‘”we consume few raw agricultural products”. “So in the increase in food prices, there is the impact of the prices of agricultural raw materials, but also the increase in the cost of their transformation..”

From this point of view, too, the situation is unstable. “To produce bread, you need flour, but also energy, recalls the economist. Either directly, to power the tractors, or indirectly, through the fertilizers used by the farmers.”

“Making flour requires energy to turn the mills; the baker needs energy to run the oven in which he bakes the bread at 4 o’clock in the morning, etc. All that is far from being negligible.”

Christian de Perthuis, economist

at franceinfo

From the ear of wheat to the bakery, energy prices, which have risen sharply in recent months, add to the rise in the price of raw materials and therefore also affect the cost of our baguette – in March 2022, energy prices were four times higher than at the same time in 2020. If all food products will be affected by this increase, bread remains a symbol at the crossroads of the crises of our time.

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