View from the East

By Dr Keith Dawson

As I sit writing this month's column, I am looking out across the dry, dusty and hot landscape of my favourite region in Portugal – Alentejo.

Irrigators are working hard on parched grass on my journey along the Tagus river and maize is ripening to its golden brown in the October sun, with temperatures above 30°C.

Alentejo is famous for its great red wines and it is the authentic heart of Portugal in many ways. There are no queues at petrol stations and the beautiful display of fresh produce in the local supermarket is both extensive and mouth wateringly impressive.

Whilst the small grain cereal harvest is now gathered in, late vegetable crops and maize are still being harvested with no shortage of farm labour. Yes, every country has its problems, but the UK's, or more correctly England's, current problems are not Portugal's – a nation with vaccination rates far higher than the UK, at more than 90%.

Yet these facts do not fit the narrative of a UK Government desperate to make Brexit appear a success in their increasingly desperate attempts to 'gaslight' the public.

Gaslighting a very apt term currently as the imperfect storm of Putin arm-twisting on the Nordstream pipeline politics during the German elections, French interconnector difficulties, high Asian LNG demand, renewables failing to deliver and chronic lack of UK gas storage, compounded to put up wholesale gas prices by almost 300%.

At least it would have been a perfect storm, but that unusual beast, a storm with no wind! High pressure over UK meant turbine blades in the wind factories stayed stubbornly immobile, meaning that expensive gas and even coal back up generation has had to be employed.

As I've said said many times, the veneer of civilisation is very thin, and politicians and the public meddle with it, at all our peril.

Who would have thought at a time when Glasgow is to host the world at COP26 aiming to reduce CO2 emissions, that the 'free market' UK Government had to subsidise a US company to produce it. And give a subsidy to restart it's fertiliser plants, as we were the only nation on the globe with a shortage of CO2, as a by-product from industrial N fixation!

It's a vital ingredient not just for food processing logistics, but also hospitals.

A country whose PM regaled the UN with tales of the Muppets and the need for 'scientific reality,' whilst simultaneously suggesting we regress to an unscientific measurement system of pounds, ounces, roods, acres and poles. A man who in his global net zero 'lecture' to the UN could not come up with a fourth word beginning with C, although I could think of one or two.

In his address to solve the world's ills, he proposed using the buzz phrase of cars, coal, cash and, uh, trees as his solution to net zero. Maybe he should have used conifers or even carrots as his final C?

In my personal opinion, the likely planting of swathes of upland conifers and poorer nations holding out for the £1 trillion of Paris COP 'Carrots for change' might have been more apt alliteration than Kermit?

It was not Johnson's only rash intervention with Poles this month, as the laughable offer of 5000 temporary visas for HGV drivers to aid our Brexit supply chain crisis was launched with only 127 applicants. My Polish friends think this is an insulting offer and dog lover Johnson might pause to remember that a Polish HGV driver is not just for Christmas either.

Gas inflation in more than one sense this month.

One can see rash government intervention, too, in global wheat politics. An inept and greedy state tax intervention by Putin risks critical damage to Russian wheat production and food security at a time when input costs are spiralling.

Despite a new record global grain harvest on 2021 (FAO) government meddling can damage. This tax has both limited exports and further squeezed grower margins already hit by increased costs.

Currently, Russian wheat plantings are well behind last year as both weather and these market signals have their impact. A big contrast with Ukraine where grower margins/ha have hit record levels this season, with a record wheat harvest.

Later corn, potato and soya crops are now being safely gathered in at our oblast, the latest and highest yielding in Ukraine. The Russian contrast less an effect of social distancing than distant 'socialism', or some would say, a Russian 'Mafioso' government.

Our potato harvest is going well, almost three-quarters complete and quality is good. Yields of our starch potatoes for biodegradable packaging are up to 60t/ha, with zero waste.

Building our new store and starch factory has also gone well and our Swedish starch processing line is being installed. Like prices elsewhere, steel has gone up, but early purchase paid off and there is not the shortages of materials and labour found in the UK.

Whilst there has been a Covid-19 effect, with UK employment now up to pre-Covid levels and around 1m UK jobs still to be filled, it is undoubtedly a Brexit effect, whether in haulage, hospitality or hospitals. An effect caused by lack of forward planning and ignorance.

I surveyed my fellow competitors at a World Masters Championships this week and of the 20 nations attending, not one was suffering to the extent UK's labour, or product shortage problems. Any Government with the necessary competence to deliver Brexit, simply wouldn't have.

When we moved to third country status, it wasn't proposed we would move to third world status too!

Interesting also that George Eustice took time out to tell the world that Joe Biden and the US didn't understand the Good Friday Agreement, despite being signatories, fellow negotiators and guarantors, nor did they understand the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Foreign Office's diplomatic loss is undoubtedly the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs department's gain with 'Useless' Eustice at it's head. Weren't we told we would have an oven ready US Trade Deal by now, by the same gentleman and his boss? More gaslighting.

Despite a relatively small lamb trade deal as a throwaway bone to Johnson from the Biden dinner table, we now have slaughterhouse staff shortages and more than 100,000 pigs on farm likely unable to enter the UK food chain and input costs for farmers spiralling.

I gather also, from my friends in transport, that the latest Brexit domino effect is that of higher HGV driver wages attracting public service drivers and there are now increasing shortages of public transport drivers. All this caused by lack of investment in training and Brexit loss of freedom of movement in the labour market.

This loss is not seen on the continent, where freedom of movement is allowing much more fluidity in addressing labour gaps, as it was designed to do.

We are all having to look to pare fertiliser costs to the bone for next season's budget as a result of spiralling prices. This may well affect crop choice as well.

Fertiliser nitrogen, possibly man's greatest invention – certainly the one that had saved most lives – is still the key production driver. It is cut back at our peril, whilst reducing P and K too much is merely mining soil fertility and is unsustainable.

We have seen this too often in Ukraine where misguided quick buck farming companies and some cash strapped farmers have mined the fertility for future generations in a short term gain, which has proved anything but.

At least this year, Ukrainian farmers margins are at record levels with wheat production at a new record. This due to both weather, low drying costs and the adoption of new technology, in what I term the Eastern European leapfrog effect. This rapid adoption of new technology, jumping several tech generations in one move, is like the Queen on a chessboard.

Meanwhile, the promotional puff behind highly processed and highly expensive food continues, whilst tens of thousands of pigs languish needlessly. Whilst billions have been invested in chemically cultured laboratory 'meat' synthesised from pure amino acids in microbial vats, there are still major problems over scaling up to anything like the quantities required in the ultimate in costly processed food.

Far better to utilise grassland for four-legged technology and grow protein crops as we are doing in Ukraine to produce natural feedstock for vegetable protein products.

The same is true with new 'milks', with doubtful environmental and nutritional qualities. In my own opinion, the term milk should be restricted to provenance of the four-legged kind.

Even with oat 'milk,' which avoids the doubtful environmental issues and water consumption of say almond 'milk,' it is still a highly processed product at huge premium over good old dairy real milk. Is a product that provides a third of the protein at three times the cost really progress, except for a well heeled few?

Most commercial oat milk needs fortifying with vitamins A, D, B2, and B12, as well as various minerals like calcium. As oat milk is made from strained oats, it’s missing a lot of the nutrients that you would normally get from eating a bowl of oats.

For this reason, it’s often enriched with nutrients added back in. Compared to other types of milk, oat milk generally has more calories, carbs, and fibre than almond, soya, or cow’s milk while providing less protein than soya and dairy varieties.

As Oscar Wilde once said: "Just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be."

Energy, food, transport and labour security are all fundamental in keeping the the relatively thin veneer of civilisation intact. The shortage economy may well not be a short term effect and we may need to live with it for some time.

The wise will forward plan, but don't expect wisdom or planning from this government.