View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

As I wander our autumn sown fields in the Ukraine at this time of year – in double figure minus temperatures – I can never fail to be drawn back to thoughts of the dispirited and desperate French and German soldiers retreating across these unforgiving wintry landscapes.

A century apart but bound in a brotherhood of hardship and a deep cold which gnaws at the bones, even after 15 minutes away from a heated Toyota, let alone weeks of retreat with a Russian army bent on revenge at the heels. There is little wonder that so many of the defeated turned their own weapons on themselves.

Yet barely 70 years since German and Russian blood was spilt on these fields, as evidenced by the many roadside partisan shrines, a 'frozen' conflict simmers in the East once more. All this should remind us of both the peace and economic dividends that the EU and NATO have given us on our historically war-torn continent.

This winter in the East has so far been 'a game of two halves'. Before New Year there was an unprecedented spell of warmer weather, up to 10°C, unheard of in our 13 winters of farming here.

The lush barleys and rapes grew on and continued hungrily sucking up the mineralising nitrogen in the warm wet soils. Whilst these conditions helped our late sown wheats, after beet, to germinate and push up a struggling single leaf, they also hampered our efforts to load beet from the field onto roadside trucks.

This has left us with a legacy for spring of compaction and deep ruts on these headland areas, not something to be proud of, but needs must before frost spoilt the beet heaps.

Throughout Russia, Belarus and Ukraine there has been a growing fear that the lack of snow cover and forward crops was a tragedy waiting to happen, if normal temperatures roared in with no insulating blanket of snow.

So, as I wandered the green fields on the first day of minus 15°C (real-feel -20°C) I must say I was worried about the future of probably the best looking barleys and rapes we have grown here, as well as newly emerged late wheat.

There has been some limited factoring in of these worries into prices, but the market was nervous, especially in the light of Russia's major growth as a producer and exporter.

The effect on prices would have been greater if not for recent record global harvests in a row and high wheat stocks. 'Squeaky bum time', as a certain Mr Ferguson would have it!

Happily, overnight snow has fallen, heavily in Russia and almost enough in Ukraine, but temperatures are forecast to rise above zero again soon. This was whilst Scotland was in the throes of snow chaos!

So the crop overwintering capacity in Ukraine is still in the balance, as February and March can be cruel months.

In stark contrast to a wintry Ukraine, I spent the whole of the festive period travelling through the less frequented areas of Guatemala by mountain bike. It's a fascinating country, with agriculture providing 75% of the exports and employing more than 50% of the populace.

You know how it is, I'm sure – we agriculturalists can never switch off from farming. It was fascinating seeing maize grown on steep steep slopes at over 10,000 feet. All hand planted and hand harvested I might add, hence the large workforce.

The country is very poor, as is the infrastructure outwith the Guatemala City area. The gap between the rich and poor is huge.

The average Mayan earns half that of the average Guatamalan of European descent, or 'landino', who own more than 70% of the land. Over 60% live in extreme poverty and food insecurity is a major problem, with less self sufficiency than Cuba at 60%. (UK food security has dropped from more than 90% to 75% in the last two decades and Brexit will make this trend worse, as well as lowering food safety standards.)

Main staples are maize, black beans and rice. The poor often go hungry, but the people were warm and friendly without exception.

The Mayans still suffer from social discrimination, partly due to the legacy of the civil guerilla war three decades ago. Infant mortality and education are amongst the worst in Central America.

I was told there was not much interest from the government to improve road networks in outlying regions, as they arrive by helicopter! For a country less than 300km from Pacific to Caribbean, it takes more than 18 hours to traverse and the valleys are so deep and remote that even adjoining valleys may speak a completely different Mayan language. Direct contact between valleys has only been possible in recent decades.

Coffee is the largest export and is excellent, with bananas grown lower down nearer the coast. Due to weak land rights and poor environmental protection. deforestation to grow corn is a major issue and the crop moves higher and wider every year.

This is in contrast to its neighbour, Costa Rica, where environmental protection and looking after 'wilderness' are given a much higher priority. It is an area of significant volcanic activity and I witnessed a number of eruptions and resulting ash plumes spreading across the sky, giving the gift of wonderful sunsets.

Sugarcane and bananas are also important crops in the more fertile lands. A wonderful green mountainous landscape, a intriguing history and warm welcoming people, with plenty of agricultural interest.

So, two very different forms of agriculture but all part of the rich fraternity of farmers working hard to feed our growing global population.

In this noble endeavour it was great news that science and sound judgement triumphed over corruption and misinformation and glyphosate was approved by the EU for another five years.

This decision improves worker and consumer safety and protects the environment, compared to alternatives.

Whilst 2017 was a difficult year, the underlying metrics are sound and promising. There's less famine and fewer deaths from both war and natural disaster and less disease and increased global life expectancy.

The latest most accurate HadCrut 4 satellite data shows global temperatures are now cooling, despite the lasting effects of El Nin? in the first half of 2017. The latest UK research published in Nature shows the extreme temperature increases predicted in the IPCC models (which have been unchanged for 25 years) are unlikely.

Even if Co2 levels doubled from current levels, temperature increases would be no more than 2.4°C higher than currently and likely less. This is due to inaccurate equilibrium climate sensitivities in the current predictive models. The science is definitely not settled!

Interestingly, UK investments in renewable energy have dropped by 56% with the removal of subsidies. Rising fuel poverty is now a real issue, with 9% of Europeans unable to afford their heating, largely due to increased costs caused by funding renewable subsidies.

Despite the predictions of many climate scientists, to paraphrase Churchill: 'Never before in human history, have as many been fed so cheaply by so few,' with four near record harvest in succession and prices, in real terms, at historic lows.

This is in large measure a great validation of the success of our global industry, but at current prices it is an underlying success that is unsustainable, despite weaker sterling.