Storm clouds gather on the harvest horizon once again

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Early August, hot and humid, sweat popping, tiny black thunderflies settling on arms, face and hair, black clouds building up in the distance – harvest must have started.

Indeed it has, thunderstorms permitting, and first reports for winter barley are better than my initial pessimistic forecast. Growers say that grain has filled out surprisingly well in the past few weeks with quality better than last year. But in these early stages all are cautious.

There can be many a slip between loads coming off the combine and final returns from the end buyer, or until a farm-dried crop is weighed and fed in animal rations over the winter.

The first reaction to winter barley producing reasonable crops has been a drop in price. Wheat prices have also fallen, partly because of better prospects for the British harvest, mainly because harvests in other parts of the world, especially Russia, are yielding well above last year.

It’s of academic interest to most of us, but in the past decade the average price of farmland in Britain has more than doubled to £6,000 per acre. Those amazingly far-sighted people “Experts say ...” as quoted in the business sections of several newspapers claim that best-quality land could be making more than £20,000 per acre by 2020. In Scotland, land agents Savills say that prime arable land averaged £7,449 in the first half of this year, grade three livestock land averaged £2,733.

So buy now while stocks last? Possibly, but experts also advise that if buying a farm is beyond your means then invest in specialist funds that are helping clients tap in to good returns across “the food and farming spectrum”. That’s because world population, as we have been told frequently, is expected to reach nine billion in the next 40 years. More food of every kind will be needed, while demand for quality food and more meat and dairy products will come from developing and developed countries as incomes rise.

The part that genetically modified (GM) crops and food could play in feeding two billion more mouths by 2050 continues to be argued.

Well over 100million hectares of GM crops are now grown throughout the world, but the EU in general and Britain in particular persists with a ban. Most experimental results have indicated benefits from GM crops, with those for rice with added vitamin A as a means of producing radical improvement in child diets in Asia particularly convincing. GM crops with disease and pest resistance have proved their worth. No single instance of GM food causing illness in animals or humans has been found.

But, we’re told, British consumers refuse to accept GM food so supermarkets won’t accept it so European farmers can’t grow it.

The British government is trying to change that and is keen to see GM science develop in the UK. The devolved Scottish government, however, remains doggedly against GM.

Given that the average Scottish diet that encourages obesity, heart disease and various associated illnesses is still one of the worst in the developed world, it’s hard to see what their objection to GM can be.