By Brian Henderson

Glyphosate has never been far from the headlines in recent months as the ‘will it, won’t it’ debate on the product’s re-approval for use has not so much hung in the balance but swung from one extreme to the other.

But a quick look round the countryside at the moment certainly highlights just how reliant we’re likely to be on the old ‘bottled sunshine’ as this year’s harvest approaches.

For, following the drought-like conditions of the spring – with a lot of barley fields in the worst hit areas having half of the crop germinating and growing away while other half sat twiddling its thumbs for a month and half before it woke up, there’s every sign that there’s going to be a fair bit of uneven ripening as we get closer to harvest.

A surge in late tillers in some barley crops will only add to this problem, so it’s a sobering thought to think what harvest would be like if we weren’t able to use glyphosate as a harvest aid in a year like this.

We’d either see combines chewing their way through half green fields to make the most of the earlier half of the crop – or picking up discoloured heads and straw from brackled crops which are sprouting in the head with weeds growing through it if we were forced to wait until the second flush approached ripeness.

While these mixed maturity crops might still have some quality issues even after using glyphosate to even them off, they will at least be harvestable and hopefully be a heck of a lot drier than they would be under either of the above scenarios.

But even if you’re one of the many who seem to be turning their backs on malting barley, you’re still unlikely to escape having to give nature a helping hand.

For growing conditions throughout the season, together with torrential downpours and blustery winds of recent weeks, have also seen a fair few crops of wheat on the swing, despite full growth regulator programmes.

Of course, once wheat goes down, there’s little chance of it getting back up on its feet, leaving it prone to the predations of pigeons and rooks – and when they go down early there’s also a chance that they’ll have something growing up through them by the time harvest finally comes around. Either that, or it will be sprouting in the head.

So, there might be a few sighs of relief that we’ve still got the option of glyphosate.

But make no mistake, that might not always be the situation. For while it was only a week or two ago that there was a grumbling in farming circles because it looked like glyphosate was only going to be re-licensed for 10 years rather than the standard 15, everything appears to be up in the air again.

As we approach the last few months before the product’s licence for use in Europe runs out, the game once again looks like it could go either way.

On the positive side, the German government has given an indication that it will support its continued use – but that backing could be reversed the other side of their upcoming election which might just see the greens in a position to play a key role if the main parties fail gain a clear majority.

A European Citizen Initiative, which needs 1m signatures to get an issue investigated, has also gained more than 1.3m signatures for a motion calling for the banning of glyphosate and a reduction in the use of other pesticides, forcing more scrutiny.

As the European Commission felt that member states were ducking the issue and forcing it to take the flack for unpopular decisions if glyphosate is either banned or re-approved, it has retaliated by stating that member states will need to step up and take responsibility by making the decision with a qualified majority.

Even last year, when Europe gave an emergency short-term re-approval – which runs out at the end of December – they made a couple of warnings which might signal some changes, even if we do get to keep the chemical.

One was to order member states to phase out co-formulations with polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA) which has been used for many years as a surfactant to enhance the activity of glyphosate.

Along with many other member states, the UK has banned the sale of glyphosate formulations containing this product from June just passed – and while it’s still permissible to use up on-farm stocks this year, that too will banned next June.

Whether this will have any major effect on the efficacy of glyphosate itself will, I suspect, become evident this harvest.

The other condition was a warning to member states to pay particular attention to the product’s use in the weeks before crops are cut in order to enhance crop ripening – as is often so important for us coping with Scotland’s damp and cool climate.

Now as the crops shouldn’t be treated until they’re under 30% moisture, the argument runs that the grain is effectively ripe – and so the plant won’t translocate the active ingredient to the ear, with only green stalks of the crop and weed species being affected by the systemic action of the spray.

But, of course, the chemical will still land on the head – and this is why it is also important that the harvest interval is observed – as the chemical needs time to de-nature before harvest.

Other than monitoring the situation, so far the UK hasn’t moved to halt the pre-harvest use – but the Irish Government announced that it would ban the use of the chemical in this way last autumn.

However, in the wake of several pretty rotten harvests in Ireland, there would appear to have been some back-tracking since then. I believe that provided the spray is nominally used for the control of weeds, rather than as a harvest desiccant, it can still go ahead.

But if anyone thinks that Brexit might free us from any of these threats, if we’re still going to trade with Europe we’ll have to stick to the same rules.

Even if all the evidence from Liam Fox’s trade visit to the US last week wasn’t enough to convince you otherwise – and you still believe that a trade deal with the US will be our salvation – even that’s not guaranteed.

For I heard a rumour just last week that those with contracts for some niche malting varieties to be exported to the US for craft brewing have been banned from using pre-harvest glyphosate.

The whole of the glyphosate debate has been infuriating to follow and has undoubtedly owed more to politics than science, a development which is likely to continue through to an upcoming debate on so-called endocrine disruptors, which could see a further 26 of our commonly used plant protection products summarily banned before the end of the year.

But, having filled this column with a deal of doom and gloom, I must leave you with something which put a smile on my face.

I’ll admit to laughing out loud when I heard English NFU vice-president, Guy Smith, commenting on the claims of a green MEP that traces of glyphosate could be found in her urine – he put the findings firmly in perspective when he commented: “Yes, but she’d need to pee 80,000 gallons on one thistle to kill it.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to come to that!