The lowest level of protein in French wheat for years has drawn the government into a debate on tackling a decline in crop quality that producers and traders fear will cost the European Union's top exporter lucrative overseas sales.
Protein content is a basic measure of wheat's suitability for making bread and a key requirement for importers in Africa and the Middle East that France targets in competition with North American and eastern European suppliers.
Average protein content in this year's French harvest was 11.2 per cent, the lowest since at least 2009 and around the minimum accepted by buyers. Poor growing weather was a factor, but the continuation of a declining trend has caused alarm in the grain sector and prompted the government to call for action.
"The issue is clear: we're on a slippery slope in terms of protein content," said Remi Haquin, a farmer and chairman of the cereals committee at farm agency FranceAgriMer.
"There is a real risk for us on the world market if we don't get back to 11.5 per cent. That's the standard for the French milling industry and for the French-style bread you find in the specifications of our customers in the Maghreb and Egypt."
France exports about half of the roughly 36 million tonnes of wheat it produces annually, and in recent years has sent most of its exports outside the EU to meet emerging-market needs.
But the dip in protein has highlighted its relatively ordinary wheat quality.
The government has asked FranceAgriMer to put wheat protein in strategic plans for farming to be outlined by year-end.
"We know now that the protein levels in our wheat are too low," Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told a parliamentary committee last week. "There is the danger of losing markets, so we have to improve the situation."
Prices for protein
Lower protein does not look like harming French exports this season, since EU wheat is being snapped up thanks to brisk demand and supply snags around the world.
But traders say this be may a lucky escape and France's successful export model of high-volume, homogenous wheat needs to be changed to match the quality offered by competitors.
"French wheat gives you the basic quality," one trader said. "The problem in future is that its clientele may be limited."
Despite unstable output linked to a harsher climate, lower-cost exporters Russia and Ukraine are expanding their reach and unnerved French traders with sales to Morocco last season.
Unable to undercut its eastern European competitors on price, France will have to protect its wheat quality to keep core clients like Algeria and develop other outlets, they say.
All parties agree on the causes of the drop in wheat protein — including an erratic climate, less fertilizer use and a focus on yields — and that technical solutions are readily available.
Some 40 per cent of wheat fields in France already benefit from fertilizer precision tools — like satellite data on plant nitrogen absorption — and more uptake could bring results, said Jacques Mathieu, managing director of crop institute Arvalis.
"Our objective is in the next two years to set in motion a trend to at least stabilize and if possible raise again wheat protein. So we're talking about the short term," Mathieu said.
The backing of the farm ministry and specialists like Arvalis should raise awareness of quality issues, but getting growers to adopt en masse protein measures will partly depend on linking prices more to quality, traders and crop experts say.
Cash markets for wheat in France either do not impose a protein level or set an 11 per cent minimum, and price differences between these markets are modest, in contrast to clearer price scales used in other exporting countries.
"Pricing will need to be more nuanced," the trader said. "If you don't have a price differential between animal-feed wheat, standard wheat and higher-category wheat, nobody is going to produce the higher grade."