The Scottish Farmer: View from the East author Dr Keith DawsonView from the East author Dr Keith Dawson

Well what a start we've had to the New Year –insurrection in the US Capitol, fisheries and seed potato export Brexit mayhem, harsh supply chain friction, plus empty shelves in Belfast supermarkets.

A Brexit trade deal of sorts, already fraying at the edges, was rescued from the flames at one second to midnight. A deal which UK fisheries minister, Victoria Prentis, didn't have time to read before voting on it, as she was 'too busy organising a Christmas Nativity Trail.'

Neither did the deal include 'services', which are 80% of our economy. Still, at least, according to that renowned fish whisperer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, we at least have 'happy' fish in our inshore waters, even if the fishermen are ragin' – quite rightly – at being sold down the river.

In a spirit of unity, I'd just like to take this opportunity to genuinely thank all 'Leavers' and 'Brexiters', without exception, for not gloating and rubbing our 'Rejoiner' noses in the successes of Brexit so far. Not a single, solitary one!

I was delighted last week to address the 40th anniversary of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants on 'global competitivity and food security'.

It is also the centenary year of our own Scottish Society of Crop Research (SSCR), which founded the forerunners of the Scottish Crop Research Institute, now formed into the James Hutton Institute together with the Macaulay Institute, at Aberdeen.

Our conference session was kicked off by Minette Batters, president of the NFU, who I think has done an excellent job in spearheading the industry's response to the UK Government on Brexit. She has been pivotal in ensuring a united industry approach South of the Border.

The SSCR added its voice to the many calling for 'happy' export seed potatoes. It is a ridiculous situation that Scottish growers can no longer export their renowned high health status seed to the EU and not even to the important market of Northern Ireland due to our new third country status. 'Project Fear' is 'Project Here'.

Regenerative Agriculture is gaining a lot of publicity currently, but is rather diffuse in its definition.

Is it something new and exciting or just a repackaging of older concepts? Is it fact or fad? Is it a novel new system, or just a repackaging of organic production and older techniques? I am inclined to the latter view.

At a recent conference I attended virtually, it was discussed by a number of practitioners with only a very limited number of years' experience. That is an unsuitable basis upon which to revolutionise your system.

We need facts and evidence from replicated trials over a number of seasons to base these decisions on, such as those now running at Rothamsted and the James Hutton Institute.

Like the promises of some drone companies, it is not a straw to be grasped by struggling businesses, which the majority will be as EU support payments diminish in short order.

Any new extra environmental scheme payments will undoubtedly require additional expense or reduce current production levels or both. Both these effects will increase management input requirement and reduce output.

They may well cost £x/ha fully costed to provide an income of £x/ha-no net gain. Just like our experience with an extensive drone trial project in Ukraine we undertook. It is far too easy to be a busy fool in this industry.

On regenerative agriculture, it's very definition implies that farmers have overexploited the land and a degeneration has taken place to be 'regenerated.'

Whilst this may be true in some cases, I have found in my long experience that farmers have a keen interest in their land and soil stewardship.

The renting out of land for high value root or veg crops can be an exception to this 'rule', particularly in a wet harvest. Scottish conditions and growing season can be particularly tough as we know.

I know that in Ukraine, after 15 years of cropping, our soils are in better shape than when we started. This is true in all three aspects of soil health-physical, chemical and biological.

As someone who was trained as a soil scientist, this was a point of principle to me and I know is for many others. You will note the improvement in the two soil profile photos accompanying this article.

Our use of a good IPM rotation with break crops, the use of conservation tillage with only rotational soil inversion, return of straw and regular soil analysis and soil structure assessment paid dividends.

Nutrient fertility on our excellent soils was better after more than a decade than when we took them over, Roundup-ed them and ploughed in the tumbledown vegetation we first encountered.

The Scottish Farmer: A profile of the Ukrainian soil just when the Continental Farmers Group took overA profile of the Ukrainian soil just when the Continental Farmers Group took overThe Scottish Farmer: A much better soil profile after 15 yuears of cropping by the Continental Farmers GroupA much better soil profile after 15 yuears of cropping by the Continental Farmers Group

Is this regenerative agriculture in action? Does conventional farming by its nature 'degenerate' our fields? It takes a long time to measure significant organic matter changes in soils due to its very nature.

So, what is the evidence from long term replicated trials, not just short duration part commercial field data and anecdote?

The longest continuous agricultural field experiment in the world is the wonderful Broadbalk experiment at Rothamsted. It was set up in 1843-yes 1843!

As I stated in my AICC talk we are all part of a wonderful and honourable tradition of agricultural improvement, not only geographically but temporally across the centuries too.

We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, and Lawes and Gilbert, who set up Rothamsted, like the SSCR founders, were far-sighted in their vision.

The main treatments have been and continue to be a comparison between plots receiving nutrients provided by organic manure (FYM) compared to plots receiving only inorganic NPK fertilisers and no external organic manure. A chart from the report shows only those treatments under continuous wheat for 180 years, as severe and as long term assessment as one could imagine.

Dr David Powlson's analysis of this in his papers clearly shows a significant increase in soil organic matter with the addition of FYM each year over the 177 years of the continuous field trial.

Interestingly, the trial shows that with the optimal use of NPK fertilisers there was no reduction in soil organic matter over almost two centuries of continuous wheat crops. A tough test which the Broadbalk clay loam passed with high marks.

Where optimal crop nutrition was supplied, wheat yields increased with improved varieties and technology. No degeneration here.

There is no doubt that rotational inputs of organic matter are beneficial to soil health and this has been known for centuries. Locking up carbon in the soil has more than one benefit.

Most of the very high yielding crops I have been involved with over the years have had organic manure involved. Sadly, there isn't enough to go around and transport costs are high.

Some versions of regenerative agriculture insist on the involvement of livestock, or insist on no chemical use, or no glyphosate use. Commonality is the use of no-till cultivation, continuous soil cover and sowing of cover crops to achieve this.

The proponents at the conference could not imagine how it could work without glyphosate, which makes 'RegenAg' a very broad church indeed.

Many of these techniques and tools were highlighted in SNH's TIBRE (Targeted Inputs for a Better Rural Environment) manual more than 20 years ago. This might be usefully updated and applied as part of the Scottish Governments new arable support payment scheme on a points system.

I was surprised on rereading it recently how timeless TIBRE still is 15 years later.

New technology has a key role in achieving both economic and environmental desired outcomes as pioneer Prof Joyce Tait, of Edinburgh University clearly showed all those years ago. (adlib.everysite.co.uk/resources/000/098/418/tibre_2005.pdf)

One of these new technologies is gene editing, which has immense potential to advance plant breeding rapidly and safely. But, it's a technology currently banned by EU, UK and Scottish governments.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that one of the glimmers of light so far in 2021, the new Covid-19 vaccines, have been made using this same gene editing technology. Perhaps the public value of the vaccines will encourage different thoughts and legislation on gene editing technology?

A new Defra public consultation was launched last week on the subject and farmers and the industry should add their voice. We have a world class centre in this arena at the James Hutton Institute, in Dundee.

My paper at the AICC conference on the UK's 'global competitivity' pointed out that this was far more than just cost per tonne.

Scotland and the UK is competitive in soil, climate, yield, quality, infrastructure and political and execution risk. Variable costs are competitive with other EU producers.

It is the area of fixed costs where we are not competitive, in terms of land and labour costs. It is this which drives up the cost per tonne, way above the low tonne 'cost kings' of Ukraine and Australia. These are difficult to address, but must be flexed for us to be competitive in the future.

It is fortunate we have a growing market every day with a net quarter of a million new mouths to feed. We are also in a run of global record harvests, with 2020 being the largest global harvest in human history and from less farmland than previous seasons.

The Scottish Farmer: The last of the wheat harvest in Ukraine under threatening skies ... but what's the prospect for this year?The last of the wheat harvest in Ukraine under threatening skies ... but what's the prospect for this year?

We now produce the same quantity of food from a quarter of the land area that we needed in 1960, which is a remarkable achievement for global farmers.

This has been driven by hard work, commitment, new technology and raised CO2 in the atmosphere. As Minette and I pointed out, it is this productivity gain that has driven the consumer cost of food from over 30% of income to less than 10%.

It has also spared wildlife areas from the plough and kept the global peace. We can only do this with ongoing well-funded research and the best available technology. Current famines are political, not price or production led.

So, as we enter a New Year, let's take pride in ourselves as an industry, and redouble our efforts to work as a formidable team of researchers, advisers, suppliers and farmers to feed the world, protect the environment and keep the peace.

* Keith is chairman of the Scottish Society of Crop Research and technical director of Central Plains Group – a potato, starch and plant protein agribusiness in Western Ukraine. He has also co-founded an agri-energy business in Cuba and is involved as an adviser in South America and Scotland.