Anything But Barley – or ABB for short – probably captures the zeitgeist of the arable sector at the moment as the focus moves from the 2020 harvest firmly towards what we should be putting in the ground for next year.

Inevitably, that’s going to mean that a lot of wheat will go in this back end – if conditions permit – especially when the price of this crop is currently riding close to £50 per tonne higher than not only feed barley, but the spot price of the malting barley as well.

It’s often said that we are good at farming last year’s crop – a maxim which extends to planting intentions as well. But while it’s almost inevitable that wheat could be overdone if there’s a weather window to get it sown, the reverse psychology approach of going against the herd and sticking to spring barley isn’t likely to pay off either.

With maltings apparently full to the gunnels and the dampening effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on both the beer and whisky industries now looking set to continue for at least another six months, it would take a fairly major collapse in supply to turn the tables in favour of spring barley next year.

So, I guess, in many cases, Hobson’s Choice means: Wheat it will be.

But, in the rush to get this crop in the ground, it’s easy to forget that it’s likely to be a bit more of an uphill battle than it maybe was in the past.

For a start, Redigo Deter to help us keep on top of aphids and controlling BYDV is long gone – and the increase in pyrethroid-resistant aphids is now reducing the effectiveness of this fall back. Then, just last week, it was announced that metaldehyde slug pellets are now on the way out as well

Of course, 2021 will be the first full year without that old stalwart chlorothalonil, which was key in any plans for controlling septoria, though I guess most growers probably managed to squeeze it into their early parts of their fungicide plan this year before the ban came into effect in May. Sales of epoxiconazole also end shortly – and while it has a 12-month use-up period, the tool box for controlling septoria and other diseases is becoming seriously eroded.

So, a good deal of hope for the future has been getting pinned on the use of varieties which are more resistant to this disease which can wreak such havoc in our cool, damp climate. Sadly, though, a look through the Recommended List shows that there’s little in the way of new wheat varieties suited to the Scottish market, with the ability to battle this disease on its own.

While Sundance might have a better rating than most, KWS Extase, a new hard wheat got a fair bit of publicity for its resistance rating of 8.1 and an untreated yield penalty of only 6% – but despite the hype it obviously wouldn’t do for the distilling market.

With the ever-increasing sophistication of plant scientists and breeders, though, would it not be possible to target the genes responsible for such resistance and allow them to be expressed in other varieties?

Broadening this out to include barley as well as wheat, I guess there’s been some good news and, inevitably, some bad news on this front for Scottish growers. I guess the good news is that a major step forward in understanding how gene editing techniques could help improve the quality of barley crops has been claimed recently by workers at Scotland’s International Barley Hub.

An international team of workers – including scientists from the hub which is part of the James Hutton Institute, at Invergowrie – have drawn together an important insight into the different roles genes have in grain composition. Importantly for Scotland and testimony to the importance of having such a world-class facility based in this country where the crop is so important, is the fact that the work could lead to varieties better suited to the needs of the malting and distilling industries which make barley our single most important cereal crop.

The not so good news, however, is the fact that despite the obvious benefits offered by such cutting-edge techniques, questions hang over the ability of Scottish producers to gain direct benefits from such techniques, as long as the Scottish Government continues to maintain its well-rehearsed resistance to the commercial growing of crops resulting from modern bio-engineering techniques.

The research, which was carried out at the hub by Dr Guillermo Garcia-Gimenez, looked at ways of influencing levels of beta-glucan in barley – a form of dietary fibre which I’m led to believe protects against various human health conditions. Whilst this might be an attractive trait in crops grown for food use, it’s not as desirable for the malting industry.

However, in what was the first published use of the CRISPR gene editing technique in barley crops in Scotland, researchers found that by using it the genes responsible for the trait could be modified to influence the levels of beta-glucan in the barley.

Dr Garcia-Gimenez said that using the gene editing techniques to modify gene expression led to specific differences in grain quality, composition and content of this compound: “We hope this work will contribute to creating awareness about the potential of site-directed mutagenesis and the current gene editing regulatory framework.”

Dr Kelly Houston, joint senior author of the study, was also quoted as expressing a hope that such techniques might gain greater approval: “We are delighted that our findings can provide real benefits in terms of understanding how gene editing can help improve the quality of barley crops and gain insight into the different roles these genes may have in grain composition.”

The Scottish Government’s determination to continue to prohibit the commercial growing of gene edited crops following Brexit puts it at odds with UK Government’s stated intentions of allowing such crops to be used. Adopting such crops would bring the country into line with the many developed nations where the technology – which allows genes already present to be expressed – is viewed as very different from early transgenic GM crops where DNA for different species was often introduced.

We’ve been round the houses on this one before, but not only are the techniques being used in labs in Scotland – and the fact that our own scientists have been highlighting the real benefits which such an approach can have – should surely lead ScotGov to review its position without abandoning its principles?

What is the point of a world-leading facility, such as the International Barley Hub, if we’re not allowed to reap the direct benefits of its research? I put this to Professor Colin Campbell, chief executive of the James Hutton Institute – but he argued that Scottish farmers would be able to benefit from the findings: “The research is about getting a greater understanding of barley genetics and not about directly producing a new variety by gene editing.”

He said the work would benefit Scottish farmers because it would help breed new varieties by conventional means and contribute to a better understanding as to which genes contributed to valuable traits and target the best versions of these genes for selection in conventional breeding.

“Gene editing is only one tool to help breeding programmes,” he said. “We have many other tools we use to screen for useful traits more quickly and with developments like the Advanced Plant Growth Centre, we will be able to look at ‘speed breeding’ too in which we can use controlled environments to do conventional breeding much faster than before.

“This is by way of being able to grow several generations of barley populations in one year in indoor controlled environments and could halve the 10-15 years it normally takes to breed a new variety.”

However, I can’t help but feel that if our competitors in other countries – including England in the near future – can gain direct benefits, we’re bound to be at a disadvantage by taking the long way round while others enjoy a short-cut. Allowing gene edited crops to be grown on a commercial scale wouldn’t force growers to use them – but would allow them to chose what was best, based on their own assessment of the demands of individual markets.

But if a ban on such varieties is maintained in Scotland, once again we’ll be left with Hobson’s Choice.