By Dr Keith Dawson

Since I last wrote, the wheat harvest has finished here in Western Ukraine and bearing in mind the difficulties last autumn, the results have been pleasing with averages above 6 tonnes/ha and quality good. 

Harvest conditions there have been much better than the dreadful weather in Scotland. Despite this, rain caused delays for wheat and barley harvests and hitherto unseen barley brackling caused significant losses. 

The weather has been better for root crops, with the only downside being new top growth in beet giving slightly lower sugar contents, as unwanted top growth is made at the expense of root reserves. 

Potato yields are ahead of budget so far and the wetter conditions have reduced bruising damage markedly – which was a major issue in the last two dry harvests. Saleable yield should be up and smallholder crops had more blight this year. This produce will not keep, so prices for stored produce should rise later – we hope! 

Our soya has also been ahead of expectation and is almost complete. It’s a quick turnaround to get wheat in after soya and beet, and wet conditions like last year don’t help. Still we are thankful we are getting through it, judging by conditions in many parts of Scotland. 

We are now moving our beet piles from the side of the field to the factory, requiring the movement of over a 250,000 tonnes of produce and 10,000 lorry loads. 

The oilseed rape has established well, although again in two-tier crops of small and large plants due to differential soil moisture. 

Barley volunteers have been aggressive this year, linked to higher grain loss and soil conditions. This gives two or three waves of germination, requiring multiple applications of expensive graminicide.

Winter barley is now emerging strongly in the moist wet Horsch’ed seedbeds. 

On the other side of the world, in Cuba, we are reeling from the effects of the hurricanes that ravaged the Caribbean. The Cuban economy will take a time to recover, with 10 dead in Hurricane Irma.

Power and water were out in the capital for five days. Recovery was impressive and much of Cuba is almost back to normal, in contrast to Puerto Rico. 

The construction work at our first bioenergy plant, five hours east of La Habana, was in one of the worst hit regions. Our damage was, thankfully, limited to a few roofs and our construction machinery was welcome in the recovery effort at both the local sugar plant and in the town. 

Although it was not a Cat5, the hurricane was the strongest to hit Cuba for almost a century. There has been a gap of 12 years since a hurricane has hit the US mainland, so there has been an almost unprecedented lull in hurricane activity in recent years, despite predictions to the contrary. 

Even Jeremy Corbyn, in his conference speech, wrongly linked hurricanes to climate change, despite his eminent meteorologist brother, Piers, taking a diametrically opposed view. 

The worst hurricane to hit the US killed 9000 in 1900, so it is good that, in fact, hurricane intensity and frequency has reduced in recent times. 

It was reassuring to see that a new peer reviewed paper in ‘Nature’, from University College London, finally reinforcing what this column has been stating for years. The climate prediction models have been inaccurate and reality is lagging far behind the models driving government policy. 

The lead UCL scientist, Richard Millar, was highly voluble at the Paris climate conference, but now admits graciously, he was wrong and rates and extent of warming have been exaggerated. Perhaps the Scottish government might now phase back their ‘too far, too fast’ green taxes and maybe even give hard-pressed consumers an electricity rebate as their policies have been over dramatic, costly and misguided?

This is not the first paper highlighting this discrepancy and even the IPCC now acknowledges the fact. So, confidence is rising in two key aspects of healthy human climate change scepticism. 

First, climate models have indeed run ‘hot’ and inaccurate in predicting the speed and extent of warming. Second, the global temperature plateau since the turn of the century was actually real. 

But, the science is not settled. As I write, global mean temperatures are falling again post El Nino and polar bear numbers are at record levels. 

An effect also highlighted in this column over the years is the increase in crop yields due to increased atmospheric CO2 levels. By our calculations, this is worth $180bn per annum in extra grain alone.

After initial rebuttal from climate alarmists, this good news, too, has been accepted reluctantly. Ever inventive, the alarmists have now come up with the hypothesis that this must mean lower levels of micronutrients and protein in the extra yield produced. 

Sadly for them, the science doesn’t support this angle. Lower yielding organic crops have been shown to be no more nutritious than higher yielding conventional crops and the quantum difference in yield between organic and conventional, often at 40-50% is much greater than the extra 7-10% produced by extra CO2. 

It is not any easier to hit low grain protein in malting barley now than it was 30 years ago, despite higher yielding varieties, less grass in the rotation, lower organic matters and the extra yield from carbon dioxide fertilisation. 

The main sources of vegetable protein legumes are good at maintaining protein levels as yield increases, through extra nitrogen fixation. The alarmists would complain about the colour of the ink if they were handed a lottery cheque, which in real terms is exactly what the world’s hungry have received due to extra yields driving down global prices. 

On the domestic politics front, we appear to be heading for some form of bizarre fantasy Schrödinger’s Brexit, where we can be both in and out of the single market and customs borders at the same time. 

The Blessed Michael of Gove seems to be like a rabbit in the headlights of the oncoming Brexit, with little obvious preparation or guidance for both agriculture and the wider agri-food business. 

Certainly, if the Bombardier decision is anything to go by, the answer doesn’t lie in some form of trans-Atlantic ‘Entente Cordiale’, no matter how much hand-holding or hand-wringing Enola May does. 

Agri-foods is one of the industries that will be hit hardest by pre and post-Brexit dynamics. The UK’s reliance on European food and input imports, a rising trade deficit in UK-consumed food, uncertain labour supply and adjustments to food standards will all have an impact, rarely positive. 

When viewed in tandem with current pressures from retailer supply chain consolidation and significant margin pressure from input inflation, not being mirrored in top-line price inflation, this suggests a rise in mergers and acquisitions in coming months and years is inevitable.

This will no doubt mean increased price pressure on farmers. Those who voted and hoped for increased opportunities, may well have to revise their optimism in the light of the pressure on the agri-food industry and cheap imports from the US and NZ. If Brexit actually happens? 

There was much publicity, recently, over the first increase in numbers of malnourished in the world for over a decade – largely due to conflict not supply – after four near record global harvests.

There was much less acknowledgement of the fact that we are now feeding more mouths than ever before in human history, and more cheaply in real terms, which is a global success for our industry. 

This year was also the first year in history that the numbers of obese exceeded the malnourished, a ticking health time bomb of epic proportions!