Oilseed rape is a key crop in both the UK and EU. It is the fourth most important crop behind wheat, corn (maize) and barley in the EU. Here in England, where grain maize is still a minority crop, OSR is our third most important arable crop and has been an essential element in most cereal rotations.
Past returns have been good; the crop has delivered agronomically and answered the need for a profitable break crop with a ready market, as well as being a great source for biodiversity on the farm. Like many, over recent years, I have shortened my rotations from six to four years for OSR but, all too aware of the impact of club root here in the South West, have resisted the moves made by some to implement alternate wheat/rape rotations.
But agronomic and political changes are not proving friendly to the crop. Yield variability and high growing costs, particularly in the critical autumn period, have always made OSR something of a challenge and the impact of the current loss of neonicotinoid seed treatments and pressurised market prices has meant many growers will be reconsidering its place in their rotation.
Growth in OSR throughout Europe has been dramatic, with production doubling from 12 million tonnes in 2003 to more than 24m tonnes last year. This rapid growth was a direct result of the implementation of an EU fuel policy since 2003. This policy and subsequent biodiesel demand has created its own EU oilseed oil supply. We have been using standard values for greenhouse gas emissions combined with land use reporting through Red Tractor and equivalent assurance standard up to now. From 2017, the default saving of greenhouse gas emissions will rise from 35% to 50%, and we are working with AHDB to ensure demonstrating sustainability is as straightforward as possible.
Rapeseed oil is well known for its health benefits, yet the demand for rapeseed oil for human consumption has remained stable at about 3m tonnes, for decades. Today, 30% of the crop is involved in biodiesel and that is why the recent EU legislation on Indirect Land Use Change could have such a dramatic impact on the future of the crop.
New EU renewable energy legislation, to be voted on as this article goes to print and into May, aims to limit the inclusion of biofuels to 7%. Here in the UK, our inclusion levels are still below this reduced level but we urgently need the Department of Transport to raise the UK Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation up to achieve the 10% required by EU legislation.
Far too often the criticism of food versus fuel is used against biofuels. In the case of OSR it is not justified; 60% of the crop, after oil extraction, will take the form of rapeseed meal, a valuable protein feed for EU livestock reducing the need for increased oil meal imports and thereby mitigating the severe EU protein deficit. Domestic oilseed meals now represent over 30% of vegetable EU protein consumption, up from 20% in 2003. Growing fuel on the farm as part of an arable rotation is not new, we have merely replaced the oats and hay which our forefathers grew for horses used in transport and for farm power.
The NFU has commissioned an Oilseed Rape Insect Damage Survey for this spring. This survey will build on the data from the HGCA Autumn Snapshot where losses to CSFB were estimated at 2.7%. This overall figure masked some high regional losses and it is important we continue to gather data to understand the full impact including damage from CSFB larvae in the spring and the impact on crops from turnip mosaic virus spread by aphids. For more information and to complete the survey go to nfuonline.com and click on ‘Crops’.