Earlier this year the European Commission was set to launch its new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 – along with a brand spanking new ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy (which ran under the somewhat unfortunate acronym of F2F).

However, due to the Covid-19 crisis, their big launch was postponed and, as I write, the early May release date looks unlikely in a continent still contorted by coronavirus. But, I hear you ask, what’s the biggie – after all doesn’t some branch of the EU bureaucracy sausage machine churn out a new aspirational document every other week?

Well, the answer is probably ‘yes’ ... and ‘no’ – in that, yes they do, but probably not one quite like this. That’s because the drafts of the document, which were released shortly before it’s original and subsequently postponed launch date, were set to recommend a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides by 2030.

The EU should commit, the paper read ‘to reduce the risk and use of pesticides by [50%] in the EU and drastically increase the uptake of integrated pest management methods and biocontrols’. It also called for a ‘significant reduction’ (eg at least 30%) in the use of mineral fertilisers over the same timescale.

Agro-ecosystems were singled out in the documents for being prone to ‘harmful management practices, which it was claimed often included intensification of production through high inputs of pesticides and fertilisers and the adoption of large-scale monocultures.

So, it’s not surprising that the EU farming union and co-operative lobbying group, COPA-Cogeca was calling for a further postponement – and probably a pretty thorough rethink on the contents of the document.

While the UK Government’s dogged determination to stick to the current Brexit timetable could well mean that we’re out of Europe before the proverbial hits the fan on this one, I would guess that quite a lot of the fallout from such a move would still wash up on our shores, like it or not.

But whether or not the sudden re-focus on food security brought about by some empty supermarket shelves since the documents were drawn up will result in a u-turn on such a swingeing move remains to be seen. However, the threat of such a shake up did draw into sharp relief some of the external challenges which the farming sector faces and the uphill battle which we sometimes have to mount when doing our bit to increase production.

This was the subject of a report from the SRUC released a week or two back – which looked at how Scotland was performing against other countries when it came to overall improvements in productivity during the past couple of decades.

I guess a report card might have read ‘fair to middling’ for our performance from the results – with the report putting us as a middle-ranking country when compared with the performance of most of our European partners, despite the fact that the level of improvement since 2000 was both small and erratic.

While we might take some cheer from the fact that our level of improvement was marginally ahead of that of our friends south of the border, a hill farm in Argyll is still never going to reach the same levels of output as a prime arable unit in Kent. In Scotland, there are always going to be additional challenges to supporting productivity growth due to climatic and biophysical disadvantages.

But the report ‘Boosting productivity growth in Scottish agriculture’ concluded that some of what was holding us back could also be attributed to inappropriate management, low levels of technology uptake and lack of willingness to adopt techniques and systems which may be more efficient and resource saving.

It also, quite rightly, surmised that disentangling the effects of poor land and climate from poor or bad management can sometimes be pretty difficult. But it was interesting to see just where the finger of blame was pointed as to why we are, if not actually bringing up the coo’s tail, certainly not leading the field as we had once done.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a research institution, Margaret Thatcher’s government’s decision to effectively axe funding of productivity related agricultural research and development in the 1980s was fingered as bearing at least some of the responsibility for dramatically reducing half a century’s worth of state-aided growth in productivity. As such scientific endeavours were deemed ‘near market’, it was viewed as the responsibility of industry and producer levy funding to conduct this and state aid was halted, to the detriment of a whole raft of farm research, including state-aided breeding programmes.

Recent research by the USDA had suggested that the change adversely affected UK productivity growth. But, as the report pointed out, recognition of the failure of the 1980s funding model was the rationale for the UK Government investing £150m via the 2013 Agri-Tech Strategy which established four Agri-Tech Centres.

An assessment of the economic costs and benefits found high rates of return and provided a strong justification for a return to some form of support of near market research as the cuts, which had been particularly severe in England, did see the UK slip well down the performance league (although other countries, such as Holland, did manage to continue supporting R and D in the private sector sufficiently well to stay near the top).

On broader farm support measures – and given the ongoing, if temporarily suspended review of support measures for the post-Brexit world – it was worth noting that the researchers found that the effect of subsidy on efficiencies varied between farm type. It had positive impacts in cereals and mixed farming, but negative for most other sectors.

Of course, as well as climatic and geographic limitations, Scotland also has some distinct and unique marketing limitations. While the relative remoteness and distance from the marketplace of many areas could account for some of this, others are more specific.

In the arable sector, our biggest single buyer – the Scotch whisky distilling industry – has introduced specific end use requirements for barley, which differ significantly from those of the wider brewing industry across the EU.

As we’ve been all too aware in recent decades, Scotch whisky distillers will only buy low and now non-GN varieties which don’t contain any of the precursors which could lead to the creation of the potential carcinogen, glycosidic nitrile, during the distilling process.

The report highlighted the fact that this is not an issue for brewing markets and while barley breeders are now incorporating non-GN traits within their European breeding programmes, they state that the lower market size of Scotch whisky (~1.0mt pa) compared to EU brewing barley use (~10mt) naturally leads to less investment in this trait when compared with that put into brewing only varieties.

“As a result, the yield performance of distilling barley varieties has fallen behind those of brewing only varieties in UK trials impairing yield growth on-farm in Scotland,” the report stated.

While the outcome of the effects of Covid-19 on the market for all malting barleys this year very much remains to be seen, this segmentation of the market does, however, mean that distilling barley production is now largely restricted to Scotland and parts of England.

In a more normal situation this meant that there tends to be a slightly better premium for distilling varieties over brewing types and in terms of value generated per ha, then Scottish barley growers had not necessarily fallen behind in financial output terms.

Also on the breeding front and with the continued depletion of the sector’s armoury of plant protection products, there has finally been a realisation that we need to take more notice of the plants’ own ability to resist the many disease challenges which they face in this neck of the woods.

So, breeders are now looking at producing varieties with traits other than out and out yield, such as disease resistance, drought or water tolerance, lodging risk or variance in performance and end user requirements.

While this might make for a more sustainable industry, it will remove the focus from increasing yields and slow down the rate of growth when measured in simple output levels, and this will be reflected in a slowing down in any gain in productivity.

Whether this trend will continue unabated, or at an accelerated level probably takes us back to the world or politics and, that, I think is where we came in ...