Getting Cerealous at the UK’s Premier Arable Event (now with added pictures!)

Well this week I went along to the UK’s largest annual arable event, ‘cereals. It was in Lincoln, lasted for two days and was absolutely massive. Aside from the free bacon rolls, wild boar and ale, it was also an opportunity for me to see how the many aspects of this industry interrelate. There was a stall for absolutely everything, from bird scarer kites, to farm insurance, intimidatingly expensive farm machinery and of course most interestingly for myself, lots surrounding plant breeding.  I used the object of my PhD research, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, as base camp, though their plot was pretty interesting in itself, showcasing a variety of activities that even I didn’t know they undertook!

NIAB stall at 'cereals' 2011

I would highly recommend these events to HPS researchers in industries of this nature. Firstly, it gave me an opportunity to try and interest people in my research who might never have otherwise considered it. Believe you me, once they have reflected they will have heaps to tell you. I made several pretty good contacts, some with tantalising archive material (stuff lying around their home/office) which they planned on investigating further on my behalf. Of course it’s most likely nothing will come of it, but isn’t that often the case with research? Secondly, it’s THEIR day to show off, so they HAVE to talk to you! I didn’t  have to introduce myself to a single one of the people I spoke to, which is handy because I am a creepy man at the best of times and this is magnified when I try and introduce myself to a stranger.  Finally, I was able to hear and see first hand what kind of problems are relevant to today’s arable community. Most valuable was discovering that most of the issues which confronted my early twentieth century characters are still alive and well today, in some instances ever growing.  Food security is clearly the most obvious example of this, as this handy Guardian page dedicated to the topic can attest. Some of the most valuable information that I gathered in this regard came from the conference sessions that I attended, the first was hosted by Barclays and the second, on the application of technology to agriculture, I shall blog about in a week or so (yeah, that’s right, my first teaser campaign! I might even throw in a dirty limerick!) Of primary concern in this first session were the effects in their view of a disproportionate emphasis on biofuels.  As one member of the panel put it “they don’t solve anything”. Of course this is one of the most contentious contemporary agricultural issues, but when Monsanto (in its European Dekalb costume) goes all guns blazing for something, you’ve got to stop and think!

Monsanto oil seed rape oil rig imageryI recommend enlarging this picture so you can see the oilseed rape ‘oil rig’ imagery in all its glory. I’m not saying Monsanto are evil or anything, but they certainly seem to enjoy ticking all the necessary boxes.

Lastly, I had my first taste of touring some crop plots, a rite of passage for any plant breeding researcher. The Home Grown Cereals Authority had the largest single crop plot at the event, as befits the producers of the nations recommended lists. These lists, which advise breeders and farmers as to the best varieties for regional conditions etc. were actually begun by NIAB, how they became the responsibility of the HGCA is a question I shall turn to towards the end of my project period but on the surface appears ripe with institutional intrigue. On this tour I was informed as to how ‘Claire’ is good for yellow rust and that this disease’s presence in the current display plot shouldn’t concern potential growers.

I also learnt that ‘KWS Santiago’ had demonstrated the highest yield ever entered into the national list, though required no small amount of treating (fungicide’s and so on). Whereas ‘Stigg’ offers slightly lower yields but needs very little treating. What might influence a farmers decision in such instances? Aside from high yield=high profits, influences can include the preferences of world food markets, preferences of consumers (both domestic and industrial), government and EU policy, local weather/soil conditions, list rating, novel material demands, global political upheaval, market volatility and in many instances personal preference no doubt plays an important role. Wrapped up in all this are issues involving pure/applied science (how might Rothamstead be compared to institutes such as NIAB?), state/private funding (what’s so terrible about Monsanto?), the future of GM, the multiplicity of proffered solutions to perceived global food problems, the development of the agricultural industry in general and plant breeding in particular and of course, the daddy, how have scientists influenced and been influenced by this staggeringly dynamic industry. If you still don’t care about the history of agricultural science, you must be dead inside!

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