By Dr Keith Dawson

THIS PAST year has been a surprising and difficult one and the only certainty for 2017 is that of uncertainty.

With the Full English Brexit and the demagogue twins, Trump and Putin, in town, only the unwise would make the usual New Year predictions.

Following a bumper global harvest and rising wheat stocks, despite increased consumption, the current cereal prices look to be here to stay, at least in the short term. These record yields and lowered prices are in stark contrast to climate/food security modellers who were predicting crop yield disasters with rising temperatures.

Neither has happened. The current global mean temperature has dropped in recent months, post El Nino at the fastest rate for decades, another fact modellers and climate science activists failed to predict or report upon.

Expect continuing lower global temperatures in coming months, with a strengthening cooler La Nina, which has nothing to do with CO2 related climate change predictions.

The scandal over World Bank funding by the taxpayer suggests there's little prospect of the proposed £100bn taxpayer-funded Paris agreed 'Climate Change Fund' showing any more transparency, or value.

This confirmation bias, where people only accept messages that confirm their prejudices, has been much to the fore this year in our so called 'post truth' society – from the election of Trump, the dangerous fiasco of Brexit, to posturing on climate change.

The truth is, mankind has never been better fed and any famines, such as Yemen or Syria, are linked to war and politics. not a shortfall in food production, which is happily keeping pace with increasing consumption.

It is our 10th harvest in Ukraine and we are lifting the last fields of sugar beet from under the snow to complete our beet piles of 250,000 tonnes. The continuing major logistics task of delivering the harvest to the sugar factory requires 10,000 truck journeys!

Winter crops in Ukraine and southern Russia, apart from late drilled wheat, were looking good before the snow cover which, so far, has protected against double digit frosts.

At a recent meeting of village council heads (80% women), that I addressed in Ukraine, I was reminded how far we have come in 10 years here. This has often been in difficult conditions and through two financial crises, one global and one national caused by Putin's aggression in the east.

It was also clear how appreciative the villages were of our support and investment in these tough times. The ripple effect of the farm business has spread in many ways, like putting bread on the tables of hundreds of local farm workers tables, increasing prosperity of the villages, the hauliers and suppliers, local small landowners with a previously wasting asset and workers in local processing factories who depend on our produce to keep the 'wheels' turning.

But it is becoming a real worry that new chemistry is becoming harder to find and old chemistry is being lost at a rate of knots. This can be by removal due to increasingly exacting and sometimes ill-judged regulatory procedures, crop resistance or by manufacturers being unprepared to pay the testing costs of new regulatory testing hoops.

One of the issues here is the inability of the public and many pressure groups to understand the difference between 'hazard' and 'risk'. When setting out on a car journey, the hazard is that you could have a serious accident, but the risk of this happening is very low and deemed entirely acceptable for the benefits accrued from such a journey.

The consumer risks from crop protection products are infinitesimal when compared to driving your car. Whatever the reason, this opens the door to desperate marketing managers in manufacturers attempting to weave their black art at the expense of farmer's and consumer's pockets.

I have written before about the massive cost increase for the fungicide/PGR metconazole product, Karamba, in Ukraine. This month it is the turn of another 'new' and 'exciting' PGR (prohexidione-calcium) to be launched by BASF in Ukraine at a huge premium over chlormequat, which is now 'cheap as chips' as a good generic growth regulator.

Sad to relate this 'new' active is also off patent and I can recall was looked at in the late 1980s as a PGR when I worked with BASF. If it was worth the candle as a PGR, it would have been on the market decades ago!

Only desperation in the marketing department has led to its exhumation, not unlike the video for 'Thriller', as a cereal PGR.

Far better to use a targeted dose of the much cheaper, generic chlormequat with a good quality adjuvant like Kantor or Arma at a fraction of the cost/ha. The advent of generic forms of Moddus is also welcome price competition for our barley lodging control needs.

The same marketing dance to confuse the farmer is taking place in the SDHI fungicide market with 'new, improved' mixtures which add little to the real benefit of such stalwarts as Adexar and Aviator/Siltra. This posturing for market share has little place at current, or indeed any, grain price. Buyer beware!

It's useful that we find that the correct low dose adjuvant not only aids PGR use as shown in SAC and UCD trials, but also improves SDHI performance and resistance management, critical with these valuable, at risk, SDHI tools.

Real breakthroughs such as N Fix, a new agrobacterium for cereals, provide much greater potential progress than marketing 'magic'.

One of the many notables to leave us in 2016 was the political icon, Fidel Castro, who outlived 10 US Presidents and many CIA attempts to remove him much earlier. The commentary on this keen agrarian and champion of the sugar industry was very divided and mostly inaccurate in the polarised stands taken by both Corbyn and Trump.

The corrupt US Mafia-run Baptista government, supported by the US, was far more brutal and unequal than the Castro brothers' revolutionary government which replaced it. A nation and its people who do not wish to be liberated cannot be 'conquered' by 82 men botching their arrival on a beach in an overloaded pleasure boat, however charismatic their leader might be.

It's worth remembering that it was president Roosevelt and his vice-president 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon who snubbed Fidel's initial olive branch overtures, as they were still angry and embarrassed that a handful of men, with the support of the people, could overthrow their corrupt puppet regime in 1959.

Whatever the many mistakes of the Castro regime, a massively poor and illiterate people now have a hugely literate population with medical services and education free for all, and racial and gender equality to shame it's larger neighbour.

It is also telling that infant mortality rates and life expectancy in Cuba are both far superior to the US. It was also Cuban medics who were amongst the very first to arrive in Africa in response to Zika.

One issue Castro railed against was the use of food crops for bioethanol production, as he saw it as immoral and inefficient. This has been a spectacular and expensive failure on the corn acres of the US, which are now moving steadily back to food crops, despite massive bioethanol subsidies.

It is ironic that as Castro departed, the new president-elect was appointed, a man who may well do more damage to the US interests and reputation than Castro himself ever managed to do in his lifetime.

Perhaps Fidel thought he could leave the damaging of US interests in safer more efficient hands, once more in partnership with his erstwhile Russian allies?

I wish all our readers and their loved ones a very happy festive season and may the New Year bring you all you wish for. It is worth recalling the point I made in my last column that, despite whatever tragedies, bumps and dips we encounter as a species, the overall trend in what really matters is upward and positive. Let it be so in the coming years too.