Global warming could reduce European flax harvest by a third this year

Global warming could reduce European flax harvest by a third this year

Translated by

Nicola Mira

Temperature records were beaten worldwide in June, and the European linen industry has issued a warning: as a result of these high temperatures, the quantity of long flax fibres harvested could drop by between 26% and 36% in 2023. The Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp (AEFH) also called for a reflection on how the industry is adapting to climate change, and the consequences it could have on the linen market.

A scutching cooperative in Normandy – MG/FNW

The press release published by AEFH on July 4 was unusual, and it was a way for the European industry body to underline the significance of the challenge it is facing, despite having previously been optimistic about the current harvest. The previous season’s scutching process (by which fibres are extracted from the flax plant) resulted in a 3.3% growth in European flax output, which was 125,264 tons produced in July 2022 and April 2023. And for the current season, the area of agricultural land dedicated to flax cultivation has grown by 2% to 147,000 hectars, 80% of which located in France.

But this year’s succession of dry spells and intense rainfall mean that the industry is expecting straw yields (flax and stalks) to range from 3.5 tons to 5.5 tons per hectare, while a normal harvest would yield 6 to 7 tons. Output from the current harvest, which will be scutched from the autumn, is therefore expected to drop in the first half of 2024. Spring/Summer 2024 fashion collections will then have to use fabric lots from different harvests.

But the future of the industry remains in question, as it deals with climate change, which is going to transform the coastal strip of land between Normandy and the Netherlands where three quarters of the world’s flax output comes from. One solution is so-called winter flax, which is planted in autumn and not in spring. Between 10,000 and 11,000 hectares are currently devoted to its cultivation, twice the size of last year’s area. “For 2024, the industry is expecting a significant increase in winter flax cultivation area, alongside an increase in the area dedicated to spring flax,” said AEFH.

The association also stated that the four seed-breeding companies (two from France and two from the Netherlands) specialised in spring flax “are breeding new varieties more resistant to climate change.” While the Arvalis research institute, with its Breedflax project, has been working since 2009 to adapt flax cultivation to climate change, with the medium-term goal of improving the plant’s genetic features.

Flax flowers – MG/FNW

AEFH said that these seasonal and seed adjustments in response to rising temperatures could put further pressure on linen prices, which have been “high and volatile for some time.” Linen manufacturing is complex, and this could translate into a more widespread use of the fibre in premium and high-end textile markets.

According to AEFH, the linen industry’s specific features “make it necessary to continue to work closely with brands, in order to ensure that the market and the industry keep discussing how best to anticipate consumer needs.” AEFH must wait until September for the 2023 harvest’s results, which could shine more light on the various challenges facing the industry.

In 2022, 152,000 tons of long flax fibres used for garment making were produced in Europe, of which 125,000 in France. The European linen industry comprises 10,000 companies in 16 countries. Linen fibres account for 0.5% of all fabric fibres produced worldwide.

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