View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

In my last column, I talked about the coming of the snows in Ukraine to protect our crops and since then the first fall has come and now receded again.

The white mantle made the early Christmas markets in my home in Vienna romantic, as the gluwëin was glugged and the fresh pretzels munched. A city well worth a visit at this, or any other time of the year. Mild temperatures have now returned and the snow vanished.

The temperature in the Sea of Azov has also risen more than a few degrees and martial law has been invoked in the Oblasts bordering Russia. This reheating of a 'cold' conflict which was never frozen, but at best lukewarm has come at a time when both presidents need a boost in popularity.

Last week, on one day alone, there were 15 Russian attacks and there were injured and dead on both sides. In Crimea, Donbas and let's not forget the shooting down of MH-17, the Kremlin protested im'plausible deniability.' This time, it was a naked act of aggression just days after the international embarrassment of losing the 'shoe in' election for the seat at the head of the Interpol table.

The intercepted expletive laden command to ram the Ukrainian vessel linked the orders directly back to Putin himself. This was no isolated act of agression, as Russian pressure has been growing for most of this year.

In May, Russia opened a new bridge across the Kerch Strait which separates Crimea from Russia. It is the only channel from the Black Sea to the smaller, but still large Sea of Azov. This gives Russia control into the Black Sea, just as Turkey controls the exit into the Mediterranean.

Most commentators have failed to mention a key point-the height of this bridge. The height is far too low at 33m for large ships (including grain) to pass under, completely trapping more than 150 ships, both Ukrainian and foreign in Azov's ports. A tactical aggressive move by Russia, which will add to transport costs for Ukraine grain from the East.

Russia also moved five naval vessels into the Azov from the Caspian and has detained dozens of smaller Ukrainian vessels unlawfully, sometimes for days. It is interesting to note another unmentioned or forgotten fact, that Russia seized/stole more than 60% of the Ukrainian Navy when it unlawfully seized Crimea. All this despite a Treaty signed in 2003 by both parties to share both the Azov and the straits.

Tellingly, this was signed pre- the 'Maiden revolution' which deposed the corrupt Russian puppet president oligarch, Yanukovich. It is no accident that the recent acts are timed to coincide with the anniversary of Maiden.

The aim is to gain control of the highly strategic Azov and Ukraine's third largest port at Mariupol to blockade exports. This includes grain from the fertile soils of Eastern Ukraine, further impacting Ukraine's economy there. There will still be strong grain exports from the Black Sea, but not from the sea of Azov. The recent arrival of a WWII hand grenade rolling across our potato dressing line gave us a reminder that conflict is nothing new in our rolling landscape.

Will these aggressions lead to more sanctions? Indeed they will. Lovers of the Law of Unintended Consequence will note that previous sanctions have led to a resurgence of Russian farming.

This is due mainly to three overlaying factors. Firstly, sanctions led to a stimulus of domestic production to feed the population. In addition, the weakening of the rouble increased still further the international competitiveness of Russian grain exports.

Whilst other industries have suffered through state mismanagement, Russian agriculture is different in having a strong private sector to drive both progress and profit. Whether it is Russia, Ukraine or Cuba, it is clear that the private sector drives innovation and new employment whilst state control stagnates and ossifies.

Lessons here for Jezza perhaps in his drive for renationalisation? We have found time and again in Ukraine that central state control is a major block to moving forward. The mindset it produces invariably leads to laziness and bureaucratic box ticking, not to mention corruption and petty and not so petty theft.

Difficult to blame the individual when the system has driven them to these ends merely to survive and feed their family in the past. Domestically, Brexit rolls on and as I predicted a year ago, it is the Irish border iceberg that is the issue for the steaming SOS Brexit.

Talking to an old friend – who in a previous life who was in charge of blowing up some border crossings during the Troubles – it was clear that closing almost 300 crossings to leave only five official ones was not without problems, then or now!

On the domestic front, I was privileged to be present on two great days this month at the James Hutton Institute. The first was probably the most exciting in my 25 years of involvement with the institute, when as part of the Tay Cities Deal it was awarded £62m in UK and Scottish Government grants. This is to support the world class work of both the Barley Hub and the Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC).

The Hutton is a world leader in barley genomics which benefit both the distilling and brewing industries and the feed industry. The tailoring of barley to increase its beta glucan content, for example, would give human health benefits for both cardiovascular health and diabetes.

The APGC is researching ways of modifying plant growth by varying light spectrums and other inputs to accelerate growth and improve quality traits. This is targeted at high value crops, such as leafy greens and herbs, as well as speeding up plant breeding and understanding of broadacre crops.

Ground-breaking work which is helping on site development in vertical modular farming in company Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS). Work here on improving both energy and water efficiency will reduce the costs of both vertical and more conventional high value farming.

Using key LED light spectrums to control sprouting in potatoes to reduce or eliminate chemicals is of particular interest to those marketing via long term storage. By increasing CO2 levels and using carefully selected LED spectra, production can be increased by almost 50% within a given time frame. I tasted some of the best coriander and basil to satisfy my taste buds straight off the production line.

At the JHI internal technical conference last week, I was highly impressed by the range and scope of the papers presented from barley genomics to soil health and root mycorhizal benefits for phosphate nutrition. From catchment protection, to pharmaceutical products within raspberries and from social studies on helping farmers to integrate technology faster to work on the potential quality of Martian soils! They most resemble the soils of the Outer Hebrides – apparently.

Few if any institutes can demonstrate the breadth and global impact of the Hutton and these recent grant awards are a testament to the scientists at the Hutton and the importance of the work they do on food security, health and the environment. We are fortunate to have such a Scottish jewel. The challenge, of course, will be to turn this research into practice, a task made more difficult by advisory funding cuts.

Noting the great benefits in these vertical farm modules of both CO2 enrichment and increased temperature, to way beyond the current atmospheric levels, my mind wandered to two other recent events.

The expensive two-week IPCC Climate Change conference in Poland attempting to find agreement on how to tax the world over CO2 emissions and the rioting of 'les maillot jaunes' in France. The riots sparked by the very same carbon taxes to reduce CO2.

It was rather ironic that one of the main sponsors of the Polish conference was the 'dirty' Polish coal industry, whilst China and India plan many thousands more coal fired power stations.

Energy security, food security and political security are very much the hand grenades currently rolling across our European dressing table. Time will tell whether they are defused in time, but efficiently deployed research will be key!