View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

Since my last column less than six weeks ago, the world has changed considerably, some might say irrevocably.

As I have said in this column before, in relation to Ukraine and the conflict there, the veneer of civilisation and everyday life is thin and easily broken. As a child of post-war austerity and beyond that the Cold War, I never expected to see such a dynamic play out to such an extent and at such a global level in my lifetime.

A troubling, tragic and disturbing time for all. The Law of Unintended Consequences will play out big time in this reset inter-connected world.

The ‘dry run’ for a no-deal Brexit was an epic fail for the UK public. Panic buying by cohorts of the public disrupted supply chains, massively increasing food spoilage and waste.

Whilst UK consumers fought over toilet rolls, as a potential lockdown loomed, there was a more pragmatic approach in my other home of Ireland, with sales of interior gloss paint going through the roof. As the great Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, noted: ‘The myth of English exceptionalism is dead’.

The spread of Covid-19 seems to be based on two factors – the population density and the density of the population. One could add that neither have the UK and US governments been effective in handling the crisis, at least initially.

Death rates in Ireland are half that the UK, largely due to speed and effectiveness of government decision-making based on sound science. There is no doubt that a UK government fixated on ‘Getting Brexit Done’ dropped the ball to deadly effect.

Now that we are in Covid crisis, we still have an intransigent government fixated on a December 31 Brexit. This makes a no-deal exit more likely, with large adverse impacts on our farming industry.

Our industry and economy cannot stand both a Covid and Brexit hit within nine months. We need a CovExit strategy, not a Brexit strategy.

Just because we have a Covid fire on board doesn’t mean we should head full steam for the iceberg – the world has changed.

Lack of clarity over agricultural workers’ standing, as key workers, initially from local Scottish councils, was very unhelpful at a key time of the agricultural calendar. Farming is a one shot game in the annual cycle of production and if we don’t get it right in the spring, then we don’t eat in the coming seasons.

There is certainly a new appreciation from the public for farming, food security, greater national self sufficiency and the fragility of some modern supply chains.

A double whammy of Covid and ill thought out Government policies on migrant workers are having desperate effects on many labour-intensive farming enterprises, leading to questions on both harvest of fruit crops and sowing of spring vegetable crops.

The proponents of ‘No Deal’ often cite Singapore as a model for the UK. I always find this comparison with Singapore very strange, having lived part time for five years and lectured on food security there.

They rely on one of the highest levels of migrant workforce in the world with around 40%, or just under 30% of the total population. In comparison, it’s 6% of the workforce in UK – a sixth of that in Singapore.

Singapore only thrives due to migrant labour at both the high and low end of the job market. The government there plan for even more migrants to replace low citizen birth rates.

They also have the lowest food security of any global nation at 98% imported and are desperate to change it, with their ‘30 by 30’ programme – 30% self sufficiency by 2030. This will likely fall short due to lack of land and the expense of vertical farming.

They have a democracy in name only with tight censorship of opposition, high living costs, low tax and very poor pensions. A poor model for the UK politically, economically, socially and without doubt, agriculturally.

The weather in Lviv, in Ukraine, was very mild over the winter with temperatures well above zero for most of the time. The feared freezing March winds did not materialise this year.

The whole of Ukraine has had less snow and rain than usual and this, together with growthy conditions, leaves winter crops unprotected, lush and forward, with higher than usual levels of pests and disease.

The worry of winter is now over, but has been replaced by concern about an oncoming drought and higher than normal risk of pest attacks. Water tables in the fields are also worryingly low.

This makes for good conditions for our potato planting, which started in the second week of April, but rarely have soils been this dry, this early. These dry conditions are common throughout Europe, including Scotland and Holland, where irrigation is being used before drilling of spring crops on dry soils.

Ukraine is in lockdown, but the spring drilling season is now upon us, with dry soils and warm temperatures. Agriculture, as everywhere, is a key industry in Ukraine and agricultural workers are key workers, exempt from normal restrictions.

It’s not the best year to start a new business anywhere, though and border restrictions are tight. It has not been easy to import machinery or seed, but our experienced local team have worked wonders and planting is at full tilt for a crop much in demand – an unexpected effect of Covid-19 has been an increased global demand for crisping potatoes.

One of the key areas of concern we share with Scotland is the development of fungicide resistance. Fortunately, we still have chlorothalonil in play in Ukraine, whereas Scottish growers will not.

I recall pioneering the ‘Bung in the Bravo’ campaign for BASF back in the late 1980s to protect triazoles. I also recall our later CSC CropCare trials with folpet and whilst it was inferior to Bravo, it still gave acceptable performance at high rates.

I would implore Scottish growers to mix in folpet in their programmes this season to protect your triazoles, SDHIs and the new blockbuster, Revysol XE. You will miss them if you lose them!

Although the current coronavirus crisis is a traumatic event, I know from personal experience that good things can come from the depths of difficulty and tragedy.

On a personal level, we will not go through these events unchanged. We will all have a greater appreciation of those we love, the personal freedoms and choices we all have taken so for granted until now.

We will undoubtedly look at life from a different perspective and have a greater appreciation of the simple pleasures in life. There may well be a health bonus for the population, as we realise that we cannot just rely on the brilliant NHS for our health and wellbeing.

We also bear a responsibility for our own health through healthy lifestyle and eating. There will also be a greater appreciation of local farming and local produce, we need to make all this count for our industry and countryside in the new normal that will inevitably emerge in time.

Stay safe and healthy in the meantime.


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