Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

While it’s not my intention to play down the seriousness of the on-going coronavirus pandemic in any way or to criticise the efforts being made by the general public to avoid the disease, some of the ways in which society as a whole seems to be reacting to the threat have left me more than a little bemused.

For instance, are the immediate threats to food supplies and toiletries really serious enough to induce the panic-buying and stockpiling which have been seen in some of our supermarkets? Okay, hand gel and soap might almost make some sense if you’re to follow the Government’s 'Happy Birthday' handwashing guidance, so the desire to have access to supplies might be understandable.

But, if this results in individuals stockpiling for their own use, then surely that misses out entirely on the fact that the approach will only be effective if other people wash their hands as well in order to slow or stop the spread of the disease.

As for hoarding toilet rolls though – what the? To many, that seems to have been a key part of the outbreak so far and however irrational this phenomenon – which was first seen at the epicentre of the epidemic in Wuhan might be – it has spread around the world faster than the virus itself.

There have been reports of struggles breaking out in supermarket aisles around the world when shelves started to empty. My son in Australia told me the nearest city to him grabbed the national headlines for being the first to have seen the police deploy tasers during a toilet-roll related incident.

Now, it might be because the farming world is used to dealing with disease – be it in our crops or our livestock – on a regular basis, but so far at least, there seems to be a bit more of a measured approach from the industry. Of course, it might also be that the thought of spending a fortnight in isolation is nothing new either – as we generally go through regular periods of self-imposed quarantine masquerading under the name of sowing, or lambing, or harvest, or whatever other part of our working year sees us spared from exposure to the rest of society (and vice-versa!).

I guess there’s also a realisation that there's nothing we can do to actually guarantee that we’ll escape the clutches of whatever disease we’re looking at – but that by doing certain things we can move some way to reducing the chances of being smitten.

But while the industry should have learned a lot about the dangers of contagion and the importance of simple biosecurity measures from the foot-and-mouth outbreak, I suspect that not all the lessons will have stuck. I’d guess, though, that quite a few of them could be adapted to the current threat and prove at least as effective as the masks increasingly being worn, as often as not upside down. But let’s all hope that things certainly don’t extend to a contiguous cull.

Simple hygiene measures are, once more, being invoked as the key to stopping a runaway increase in the number of people being infected and that should probably serve as a reminder to the cropping sector to take some precautions.

For while it’s nowhere near on the same scale as the global pandemic, the spread and increase in cyst nematodes in our soils has been singled out as posing a fairly major threat to our continued ability to produce crops. Potato cyst nematode, PCN, or more simply, eelworm, has been a growing problem for the tattie boys and, with the amount of land currently infected with the pallida strain said to be doubling every six or seven years, it might take up to 30 years before infestations decline to allow seed potatoes to be grown on that land again.

The financial implication of this pest is said to be pretty steep too. Estimates put losses in the region of £2-3m per year in seed potatoes at the moment and potentially rising to £5-6m by 2025 – and there's even fears being expressed that the entire future of the seed tattie industry could be under threat.

Just as with Covid19, while hygiene measures won’t guarantee to stop infection, more care by properly cleaning equipment and anything which might be contaminated with soil from infected land would reduce the rate at which the problem spreads. And the same goes for cereal cyst nematodes, which have also been rearing their heads as a growing problem in recent years.

But back at the wider scenario, the coronavirus scare highlights just how interdependent all the different sectors of society have become and just how fragile the network which keeps globalisation going really is, based as it is on importing so many of our goods and supplies from parts of the world where labour and production costs are lower than our own.

From the UK’s point of view, where government advisers seem to be of the opinion that the country doesn’t actually need farmers, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt about maintaining at least a degree of self-sufficiency before policy decisions are set in stone.

But I guess the threat of a major pandemic does also highlight just how fragile our own situation might be. And I’m not just talking about the likely shortage of dust masks if it’s not all over by harvest time, or of how reliant we are on 'just in time' deliveries of spares and wearing parts which are likely to be produced in some far-flung part of the world, with dealers keeping little in the way of stocks at their depots – although those things, too, could be a major issue.

Whether or not the oft-quoted statistic that the average age of those in the industry is over 60 is likely to make the farming sector more prone to the ravages of the disease – which is said to be more serious for older people – or not remains to be seen. But I guess it’s probably the fact that there is little in the way of spare fat in the industry in the way of manpower – with most businesses already being pared to the bone – that represents the biggest threat to the sector.

With most units struggling to have enough manpower to cover their own operations these days, you’d have to seriously question if, no matter how much we’d like to do so, there would be enough 'slack' in the system to help out a neighbour who had been hit by the disease on a long term basis.

Just like many other sectors of society, we might be about to find out that there is a big difference between pared-down efficiency and the sort of resilience that gets you through a crisis.