UK wheat imports came within a whisper of hitting 3m tonnes for the first time since the 1970s in 2012-13, making the country a larger buyer than Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, and in line with China.
Wheat imports by the UK - the European Union's third-largest producer of the grain, and typically a significant net exporter of the grain – hit 2.95m tonnes in the year to the end of June, customs data revealed.
The figure is more than three times the 907,000 tonnes bought in the previous season, and represents the highest since 1978.
And imports remained strong into the end of the season, reaching 276,451 tonnes in June, defying expectations of a late deceleration – with some traders cautioning that millers, having gained a taste for uniform-quality foreign supplies, may be reluctant to turn back to more variable domestic wheat.
There is also talk, thanks in part to hefty imports, of a large amount of last year's domestic harvest being left for sale.
One trading house reported that "it is now thought that the carryover of old crop wheat into the new season might be as much as 2.5m tonnes, the second highest on record and 750,000 tonnes more than is normally required".
Corn imports soar too
The rush to import follows a 2012 harvest which was dogged by the UK's second wettest year in a century, which sent the yield to 20-year low, and bushels weights to the lowest since records began in 1977.
Indeed, only a fraction of the crop fulfilled full milling specifications, prompting bakers to turn abroad en masse for appropriate supplies.
Selected wheat importers, 2012-13
Turkey: 3.3m tonnes
Yemen: 3.1m tonnes
China: 2.96m tonnes
UK: 2.96m tonnes
Bangladesh: 2.6m tonnes
Saudi Arabia: 2.0m tonnes
Afghanistan: 1.9m tonnes
Sources: HMRC, USDA
Imports from Germany, a source of hard wheat, soared sixfold to 1.06m tonnes, becoming the top origin ahead of Canada, another high protein grain exporter, which shipped 358,023 tonnes to the UK, a rise of 30% year on year.
Much of the UK harvest did not even make feed specifications, thanks to its low bushel weight, requiring imports of higher grade wheat for blending, or of alternative grains.
Corn imports more than doubled to 1.69m tonnes, the highest in at least 17 years.
Prospects for this season
The UK's wheat exports slumped to a 12-year low of 756,873 tonnes in 2012-13, down 71% year on year, with much being shipped as a cheap ingredient in feed, for blending with higher quality crop.
And there are doubts over the country's ability to return to being a net wheat exporter in 2013-14, given the setback a wet autumn posed to winter wheat sowings, and the extra domestic demand as the Ensus ethanol plant comes back on line and the rival Vivergo plant hits top gear.
The US Department of Agriculture on Monday forecast the UK's wheat harvest this year at 11.9m tonnes.
Average annual wheat consumption between 2007-08 and 2011-12 was 13.6m tonnes, on UK farm ministry data.