Drinks giant Diageo has countered an attack by the Scottish farmers union after it imported 3,000 tonnes of Swedish malt into Dundee.

NFU Scotland's combinable crops committee chairman, John Picken, said earlier this week that the union was "angry and disappointed but not surprised" at the decision of the major distiller.

"The timing of such an import gives a poor message to Scottish growers at a pivotal time for the Scottish cereal sector," Picken said.

"With tens of thousands of tonnes of malting quality grain from the 2008 harvest still in Scottish stores, and the 2009 harvest started amid huge uncertainty over prices, Scottish growers desperately need strong signals from grain buyers that their crops are needed and valued."

Import shipments at critical times of the year risked damaging relationships carefully built between maltsters and growers, Picken added. "There has been a lot of talk and effort put in to building up long term partnerships between farmers and distillers but imports like this at this time send out completely the wrong signals."

However, a spokesperson for Diageo told just-drinks today (14 August) that the company buys roughly a third of the total Scottish crop of malt, barley and wheat, and that its policy is to buy "over 90%" or "as much as we can" from Scottish farmers.

However, the firm said it will always need to have a "hedge".

"You have the old crop from the harvest before, but you also have to wait for the new crop, so in order to ensure there isn't a gap, you set a contract early on to make sure you can bring in barley to cover any shortfall, if there is one," the spokesperson said.

"This particular load was actually bought almost a year ago now on contract and we couldn't get out of bringing it in. If you compare 3,000 tonnes with what we use, which is about 500,000 tonnes, it's a very small amount coming in and quite frankly we will continue to do that just to keep our distilleries running. It's been blown up a bit by the NFU … we have a good relationship with our farmers and early on in the year we settled contracts with them."