THERE WAS a feeling that we’d been stabbed in the back by our political leaders after last week’s vote on the UK Agriculture Bill in Westminster – and that the industry will be hung out to dry in future trade deals.

The UK Government’s refusal to back an amendment which would have given legal backing to their oft-repeated promise that imported food and farm produce would have to match our own high production standards, means that the undertaking remains nothing more than a mere political promise.

We all know how much the paper that is written on is likely to be worth when we face a flood of cheap food imports in hastily cobbled together trade deals.

The impression that we were ripe for being sold down this fast-flowing river was given further impetus by reports that the UK government was drawing up plans to slash tariffs on US agricultural imports in order to oil the wheels of an agreement on a transatlantic trade deal with Trump’s negotiators.

There have certainly been no signs of just how such concessions on market access would fulfil any guarantees on their environmental, welfare and production standards – despite the government’s own explicit red lines in trade negotiations, that it will not compromise the high standards which we have to work to.

To be honest, though, even hinting that such concessions might be made on the approach slopes of the talks has to have you asking just what our negotiators are playing at?

Having endured one of the most frustrating press conferences ever with the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, in her brief and unproductive stint as Defra secretary a few years ago, I’m not the least surprised that neither she, nor her department, have managed to come up with anything more reassuring than repeatedly stating that such a deal would ‘benefit British farmers’.

A spokesperson at the Department for International Trade did say that it was premature to talk about a proposal to slash tariffs, pointing out that the US-UK negotiations only started last week and it was ‘too early’ to talk about any major concessions being made – but if trade negotiations are best-guessed by reading between the lines, someone has plainly been scrawling there in crayon for everyone to see.

If Truss didn’t stand up well against a group of agri-hacks at a press conference at the Highland Show all those years ago, you have to wonder how she and her team are likely to fare when pitched against the sort of hard-bitten, battle-scarred veterans of the art who are bound to be fielded by Trump’s ‘America First’ school of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ trade negotiators?

All very depressing – as was the other news that the AHDB had another look at the likely demand for malting barley in the coming season.

Having already predicted that the outlook was ‘bearish’ – if you can be as restrained as to call a likely 84,000 tonne slump in what the brewers are likely to need in a year when plantings are through the roof ‘bearish’ – they’ve now decided that things are actually likely to be worse than their worst case scenario!

Predicting that demand is likely to fall by around 5000 tonnes of malting barley for every additional week the hospitality sector remained in lockdown, the backdrop of record plantings of spring barley and a considerable carry-over from last year’s high quality crop doesn’t fill you full of hope.

While the whisky boys need to take a longer term and hopefully more mellowed and mature view, we also know that a number of distillery sites have had to close temporarily to put in place suitable social distancing measures, while others have been operating at reduced capacity. So, there’s likely to be a reduction in demand from the distilling sector as well.

Is there any good news out there?

Maybe a wee snippet – but it took some tracking down and might not come to fruition for a year or two yet.

Apparently, scientists at Rothamsted Research have managed to breed a new type of wheat which will address some of the processing problems associated with the use of this cereal in making grain whisky – and help claw back for home-grown cereals some of the production capacity currently lost to imported maize.

The researchers at what is one of the country’s longest established research institutions claim that the new type of wheat – developed by linking cutting edge technology with traditional breeding techniques – will reduce processing problems, higher energy use, and wear on pumps caused by current wheat varieties which tends to produce a ‘gloopy’ residue.

“At present, using wheat grain is a problem for distilleries because it causes sticky residues that mean the whole distillery must be shut down for cleaning,” said lead researcher, Dr Rowan Mitchell, last week. “Our novel wheat is designed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre and should greatly decrease these problems.”

He said that the work would be contrary to centuries of breeding which had produced wheats aimed at millers and bakers, and would instead be aimed at the requirements of the distilling industry, some of which were in direct opposition to the sticky, glutinous requirements of bread dough.

If this proves successful and makes UK grown wheat more desirable for use in the country’s £5bn whisky and spirit industry compared to imported maize, which is currently easier to process, then so much the better.

Apparently, the new line is one of the first wheat varieties in the world developed using ‘reverse genetics’, where scientists start with knowledge of what a gene does rather than screening for the trait in a plant first and then looking for which of its genes are responsible.

Stressing that they are using a non-GM approach, called TILLING, the new technology has allowed them to rapidly breed their gene of choice into an existing wheat variety – a task which still remained complicated due to the fact that wheat has six copies of each of its genes compared to only two copies of each in humans.

The group has a patent on the use of the gene for this application and are now working with plant breeding company, Limagrain, to develop a new commercial variety.

Dr Simon Berry, of Limagrain, said that small-scale commercial trials would be undertaken this year – with the possibility that varieties bred from the new strain would enter official trials entry within the next five years.

“Low viscosity wheat would strengthen the continued use of UK wheat in distilling and offer a solution to those distillers still using maize,” he said.

So there you go – something to keep our ‘spirits’ up after all ...