Farming without chemical crop protection inputs was a hot topic at this year’s Groundswell conference.
Several farmer speakers shared how they had successfully developed practical solutions to reduce or even eliminate their use on their farms.
Martin Hines of the Nature Friendly Farming Network said the amount of pesticide used on cereal crops in the UK has increased for all parameters measured in recent years and this was having a significant effect on pollinators and the wider environment.
He said: “Pesticides when used in combination have synergistic impacts. We now know when different chemicals are applied together their toxicity increases, but there may also be unintended consequences of this application practice we do not yet know about.”
Peter Lundgren, an arable farmer from Lincolnshire shared Mr Hines’ concerns, asserting farmers have become ‘very risk averse’ when it came to tackling crop pests.
“We think with the use of agro- chemicals we can control the environment, but we must stop using chemicals as an insurance policy and instead make informed decisions about the scale of risk to our crops,” he said.
David Lord, an arable farmer from Essex told the conference he has reduced pesticide use by 50 per cent and admitted before he began practising Conservation Agriculture (CA) he was ‘in a vicious circle’ of ever increasing inputs.
To confront this, he has switched to one third spring cropping and ensures there is sufficient availability of suitable habitat to harbour beneficial insects.
“Floristic margins provide habitat for pollinators and predatory insects, so they help to mitigate for short-term impacts on these populations and lead to more effective pollination of crops such as beans,” he said.
Mr Lord described banning chemicals as ‘counterproductive’, adding it would lead to the use of more, sometimes more harmful chemicals in their place.
He believed the challenge was for the research on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to be adequately disseminated to the farming community because ‘there are things farmers can do to reduce their impact on insect populations’.
Mr Lundgren agreed, suggesting farmers should increase crop diversity because depending on a few monoculture varieties is ‘very risky’ and reiterated the important role of beneficial insects.
“We are seeing increased resistance within crop pest populations, but I have yet to find an aphid tolerant of a ladybird eating it,” he said.
Mr Hines rounded off the discussion with a challenge to the farmers in the audience:
“Turn off a couple of nozzles on your sprayer and ask your agronomist to show you where in the field the rows were to see if there is any difference in the crop,” he said.
“None of us wants to spend money on chemicals which we do not need to use.”