Strange claims about trade deals with other countries increasing UK farmers’ use of insecticides must be taken with a pinch of salt, says Adam Speed, head of communications at the Crop Protection Association (CPA).
There has been lots of debate and discussion regarding trade deals and standards recently, and rightly so.
The establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is a welcome first step in resolving some of those issues.
I’ve seen some very strange claims being made regarding trade deals and their potential impact on the use and regulation of plant protection products (PPPs).
The press release accompanying one such report claimed that trade deals threaten to increase the use of insecticides.
It would be interesting to see how that worked in practice. Would the US refuse to sign a trade deal unless our farmers agreed to use more insecticide?
Many of these reports call for reductions in pesticide use, usually around the 50 per cent mark, with a nod to the EU’s recently published Farm to Fork Strategy.
And while it’s easy to come up with arbitrary reduction targets, it’s more difficult to quantify exactly what the target means and to understand the impact meeting that target could have on productivity and the environment.
What do we mean by a 50 per cent reduction? Is it reduction in weight?
If so, then we are already on the right path.
Total weight of pesticides applied has declined from around 34 million kg in 1990 to around 17 million kg in 2016 (the latest available data).
If not weight, then how about the average proportion of the recommended on-label rate of application?
Many PPPs are used at rates well below what is recommended on the label.
For example, according to the Pesticide Usage Survey conducted by Fera, cereal fungicides are routinely used at approximately 50 per cent of their recommended rate.
Is that the 50 per cent reduction we are talking about?
Not really, it is another example of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM is at the heart of how PPPs are used currently and how they will be used in the future.
It ensures that PPPs are only used when pest thresholds are reached, and intervention is environmentally and economically justifiable.
It’s a mix of biological, cultural, physical and chemical tools. But for it to be effective, farmers need access to all those tools, not to have them restricted by arbitrary reduction targets.
We also need to think about the impact these targets might have on productivity.
Given that many consumers have seen empty shelves for the first time in their lives, are we willing to risk being more vulnerable to pests and diseases, with potential reductions in productivity which could impact our resilience to further shocks and disruptions?
Food prices could rise, and we might need to bring more land into production, land that would be better left as a haven for biodiversity.
Given all the uncertainty we face, whether on trade, climate, or the current pandemic, it’s important we ensure farmers and growers have the flexibility and tools they need to ensure a reliable supply of safe, affordable food.
We should also be looking at ways to expand that toolbox even further if we are serious about sustainable, productive and climate resilient agriculture.
Gene-editing is an obvious example, which is why the CPA fully supports the proposed amendment to the Agriculture Bill due to be debated in the House of Lords shortly.
This amendment would allow the Government to consult on and, if appropriate, amend the Environmental Protection Act, enabling it to reverse the damaging European Court of Justice decision to classify gene edited products as GMOs.
If the Government is serious about a science-based approach to regulation, then this is an ideal place to start and would be an important first step on the path to giving our farmers, growers and consumers access to the benefits these innovations bring.
Access that is enjoyed by many other countries around the world.
Adam can be found tweeting at @AdamMSpeed