Wheat production in the European Union has seemingly entered a new realm thanks to big yields, and this trend may continue for a third consecutive year in 2016.
The EU produces, consumes and exports the largest volume of wheat in the world. The highest-yielding wheat on the planet is also grown in Europe.
Wheat production in the EU has hit consecutive record-high levels in the last two years, and not just by a hair, by miles.
As final production reports are beginning to roll in, some analyst estimates of the 2015 wheat crop have edged out 2014’s 157 million tonnes and are pegged as high as 158 million. The recent 10-year average is 141 million tonnes.
The assist can be credited to France, Europe’s largest producer, as it added 4 million tonnes on the year for the 2015 wheat harvest. But other countries have surely contributed, as record wheat yields were observed in half of EU’s 28 countries in either 2014 or 2015.
Large harvested area has supported Europe’s recent wheat volumes, but the increase in yearly average yield, or trend yield, is driving the production train.
Given the increases to trend yield and healthy harvested area forecasts, wheat production in the EU should once again exceed 150 million tonnes in 2016 barring any extreme weather events over the next eight months.
The Power of Yield
Crop tonnage relies on both harvested area and yield, but yield has been doing the legwork for European wheat, owing mostly to research and advancements in seed technology.
Case in point: back in the early 1960s, EU wheat area was up near current levels but production volume is three times as large today.
When “adjusting for inflation” by applying 2016’s trend yield back through a production history since 1981, a wheat volume above 150 million tonnes would have been reached one out of every three years instead of the current rate of one in 10. And the past two years would have ranked fourth- and sixth- largest.
Trend yield is still increasing in the EU, but at a diminishing rate overall, less than 1 percent per year since 2004. But that is not true for all countries.
Average yields are still increasing in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic nations, where yield is still in the skyrocketing stage.
Wheat yields in Western Europe are remarkably higher than anywhere else in the world. Yields average just under 3 tonnes per hectare in the United States but above 8 tonnes per hectare in the United Kingdom. This equates to nearly 120 bushels per acre.
Over the past two years, final yield rose above trend in most European countries following two mild winters with relatively favorable spring weather. In 2014, EU’s huge wheat crop stemmed mostly from record yields in central Europe and the United Kingdom.
In 2015, much of continental Europe descended into drought at the tail end of the season but trend-or-above yield was recorded in most countries, demonstrating in part the resilience of wheat in drier weather.
Big Crop In 2016?
European farmers may harvest another enormous wheat crop for the third year in a row in 2016.
Area is expected to remain strong. In the past month, French consultancy Strategie Grains and European farming federation Copa-Cogeca estimated 2016 EU wheat area to drop by less than 1 percent from 2015.
But the slight loss in area should be outweighed by gains in trend yield alone. Taking these area estimates together with trend yield, the EU would expect to harvest 152 tonnes of wheat in 2016.
Though trend yield may be an underestimation given how good the crop looks as of late. Satellite-derived vegetation density is above average in almost every major wheat-producing country, and the weather has been quite favorable throughout for early development.
Since France’s performance is crucial in Europe’s wheat harvest, the fact that they could be headed for a new record next year might propel EU the same, which could approach 165 million tonnes if relative yields are able to match 2004’s record.
However, the downside is a potential cliff, because regardless of how much seed technology has advanced or how large trend yield becomes, weather always has the final say.
Some of this weather risk is mitigated by the geographical variation in Europe’s climate. It is very uncommon for an extreme weather event to be widespread enough to affect the entire continent, and it has only happened twice in the past 35 years, in 2003 and 2007.
As long as Europe can avoid extreme weather nuances and wheat profitability remains near current levels, wheat crops of 150 million tonnes will be standard in the EU rather than anomalies.