The future of farming

Last week, the crop protection industry suffered a significant but not unexpected blow. A typical headline was EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban. In 2013, the use of this popular class of insecticides on flowering crops was banned temporarily, but the latest decision now makes the ban permanent and extends it to non-flowering crops outside greenhouses, because of concerns about carry-over of traces of neonics from treated seed.

This has been a major target of campaigners for a number of years, but it has never been possible to garner enough support for such a ban. A major factor in the latest vote has been the change of heart from the British government, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove supporting the ban, based on the latest scientific advice. With Germany also falling into line, a qualified majority was ensured.

The change of heart was the result in part of a study published by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology last year, reported as Large-scale study ‘shows neonic pesticides harm bees’. To quote from the article Researchers said that exposure to the chemicals left honeybee hives less likely to survive over winter, while bumblebees and solitary bees produced fewer queens. The study spanned 2,000 hectares across the UK, Germany and Hungary and was set up to establish the ‘real-world’ impacts of the pesticides.”

The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, whose advice Michael Gove acted on, published its views recently (UK Expert Committee on Pesticides annual report explains neonicotinoid decision). In the words of the chairman, “Following several years of carefully reviewing new studies, data and information, we concluded that the weight of evidence had reached a point at which it could no longer be concluded that use of these chemicals posed an acceptable risk.”

Note the careful language: the advice is based on what was probably a relatively small change in the balance of risk. This has not been enough to convince everyone of the case. Manufacturers such as Bayer continue to insist that the evidence is far from clear-cut. Some may see this simply in Mandy Rice-Davies terms (they would say that, wouldn’t they) but such companies rely very heavily on scientific evidence rather than simply defending their products at all costs.

In the long run, they need to keep the confidence of their customers, and they certainly don’t seem to be out of step with them: many farmers are far from happy with the latest decision. The NFU spokesman is quoted as saying “the Commission hasn’t been able to find that these restrictions have a measurable effect on bees”, for example. And therein lies the rub: experiments may show all sorts of associations and links, even incontrovertible evidence of direct harm, but they are not real life.

In practice, bee populations fluctuate considerably, depending on the weather, infestation with parasites (varroa mites in particular) and a range of other factors. Undoubtedly, some pesticides will also have a negative effect from time to time, but there is no evidence that I am aware of that countries not using neonics have a better record of bee health than those where the insecticides have been allowed. In recent years, major losses of bees have been categorised as Colony Collapse Disorder, in the absence of any specific identifiable cause, but attempts to link this to pesticides have failed. Indeed, there have been similar very bad years for bees in times before pesticides were widely used.

What the latest EU decision ignores are the benefits that use of neonics can bring. The scientific advice is only ever about the risks (or in the case of new approvals, simply the hazards) of pesticide use. Used as a seed dressing (so avoiding most direct contact between non-target insects and the active ingredient), neonics allow farmers to grow oilseed rape, whose flowers are brightening parts of the countryside right now.

Many farmers say that, without neonics, it may not be viable to grow oilseed rape. We don’t know the effect for sure, but there is certainly likely to be a decline in acreage in coming years. For us, this would mean we no longer see bright yellow fields in early summer, and for some hay fever sufferers this would be a great relief, but for bees it would represent a loss of a major source of food.

Oilseed rape flowers profusely and produces large amounts of pollen, on which bees love to gorge. Take this away, and some hives may struggle to find such a rich source of nourishment close at hand, although increased planting of wildflower areas would certainly help. Also, if Europe produces less rape, imports of both vegetable oil and protein sources for animal feed would have to increase.

Another irony is that both of these are highly likely to come from American soya, nearly all of which is genetically modified. While succeeding in their drive against pesticides, campaigners are also increasing the export market for GM crops, another bugbear for many of them.

Campaign groups such as the Pesticides Action Network must now feel the wind in their sails. With neonics ticked off the list in one major region, they will now have glyphosate in their sights. The EU may be ahead of the game internationally by continuing to ratchet up controls on pesticides, and in so doing may simply be expanding the market overseas, but the ultimate aim of PAN and others is to eliminate chemical crop protection worldwide.

They and their allies see a future of biological control and, in many cases, organic agriculture. The reality of this is lower yields, more expensive food and a doubtful real environmental benefit. Farmed areas would undoubtedly have to be extended and the reality is that biodiversity is much higher on field margins and unfarmed areas than in stands of crops, however they are managed.

Fortunately, organic farming continues to be a relatively small niche and there is no sign of a large-scale movement towards it. In the meantime, conventional farmers are increasingly being rewarded for managing the environment as well as for producing food (although they have always cared for the environment, despite popular misconceptions). We are likely to see a continuation of the status quo for many years to come, but the situation with neonicotinoids should be a warning of some of the troubles ahead.

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