Crop health faces huge challenges including climate change, biosecurity, pesticide availability, legislation and pesticide resistance, said LEAF chief executive Caroline Drummond MBE, who chaired the CropTec Crop Protection seminar, in her opening remarks.
Joining her to discuss how some of these challenges might be addressed were Harry Fordham, Syngenta new farm technology lead; Teresa Meadows, AHDB knowledge exchange manager; and Murray Smedley, managing director of crop protection regulatory consultancy Barkwith Associates.
With regulation of pesticides transferring to GB from January 1, there is the opportunity to diverge from Europe, said Mr Smedley. “But whether it will be substantially different from EU legislation I’m not so sure.”
All existing active substance approvals, plant protection product (PPP) authorisations and maximum residue limits (MRLs) will continue to be valid in GB when the Brexit transition period ends, explained Mr Smedley. As things stand currently, the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol means NI stays within the jurisdiction of the EU.
“[In GB] existing PPP authorisations remain valid until their current expiry date. Active substance approvals due to expire before December 2023 will be extended for three years to allow time for the necessary evaluation work,” said Mr Smedley.
“This is useful in supporting the industry and growers in the medium and short term. An extra three years’ worth of products existing in GB is likely to lead to some divergence from EU timescales and it is uncertain whether GB may become a dumping ground for pesticides no longer approved in the EU.”
Mr Smedley suggested there may be an opportunity for HSE to increase efficiency and timeliness in decision making - areas which all plagued the EU system for many years. But he questioned whether crop protection product manufacturers would be able to justify the extra cost involved in putting a product into the GB market.
Some in the industry have questioned the need for the precautionary principle – which enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high - as GB becomes responsible for its own PPP regulation. However, Mr Smedley argued it would be wrong to discount it.
“Although the precautionary principle has been seen as obstructive and awkward in terms of new product development by some, it would be wrong to dismiss it.
“It is based on a reasonable scientific and logical process. We need to look outside the box. Can we change some of the factors to be more pragmatic or do we have to accept it is a sound scientific process even though some may not like the outcomes.”
Commenting on how the influence of science and politics may play out concerning PPPs, Mr Smedley said: “We have an enormous volume of scientific information - some may be well reviewed, recognised and understood; some may not. Do politicians listen to scientists and do the scientists give the same opinion all the time? There are yes and no answers to all of those questions.”
While development of digital solutions to tackle crop health issues is gathering pace, a key challenge to system efficiency remains getting different machines to talk to each other, said Mr Fordham. “We hear it from customers and agronomists. Ideally we would like to ensure everything goes up in a cloud, it talks to each other, it talks to farm management systems, the recommendation goes straight to the machine and it just works.
“We are working with Bosch and others to create a system which allows all machines to be integrated, use a cloud based system and one plug – it would be useful to plug one machine into one tractor. It would also allow use of data from that machine, such as fuel use, how tough soil is and any compaction issues, plus sensing technology to look at crop health. We are looking to get the best recommendation.”
Maximising efficiency is one of the highest priorities for farmers and the best way to maximise profitability, said Mr Fordham. “We are working on systems that could predict septoria infection with high levels of accuracy and also tell how long a product will last in certain situations [e.g. weather], so instead of prophylactic spraying you could spray only when you need to. This would use digital tools and agronomy-driven data to drive decision making.”
Further down the supply chain, Mr Fordham said consumer interest in where food comes from is growing rapidly. “In the first Covid lockdown farm shops were in great demand and local food, popular. Traceability is important. In China Syngenta has worked with local supermarkets to provide reliable and successful traceability using block chain technology for strawberries.
“Taking a picture of a QR code on a strawberry pack allows consumers to tell where they were packed, distributed and picked – even the polytunnel they were picked in. I think this technology will be in great demand.”
While bringing these developments to UK farmers may take time, technology that is available now includes Syngenta’s Spray Assist App launched earlier this year, explained Mr Fordham. “While we can give a nozzle recommendation over the phone, the app can look at the weather in your situation – you can save different locations – what job you are doing and the best water volume, forward speed and nozzle to use for that product in that situation.”
Growers can also struggle with calculating buffer zones for different products, said Mr Fordham. “We have a piece of mapping software we have been developing with French colleagues. This can look at potential water courses near where you’re spraying and tell you what the buffer zone would be for that product. It makes calculating product usage and area to spray much more straightforward.”
As part of her Nuffield Scholarship, Ms Meadows has been looking internationally at best practice and methods that would allow for the widespread adoption of integrated pest management in the arable sector.
Fears over managing risk can hold growers back from implementing aspects of IPM. However, Australian cotton grower Andrew Watson has found a way to accept risk, explained Ms Meadows. “Mr Watson has found a way to accept risk by introducing features to the landscape and field – he has shelter belts, native trees, and is introducing predatory insects via drones.
“He moved from spraying insecticides 3-4 times a year to only spraying the farm once since 2007. He is going out once a week to look at the crop, monitoring pests and beneficials and plotting numbers on a graph as they rise using knowledge gained season on season to monitor the situation.”
Tired of using multiple sprays to control insect pests, Australian leek grower, Darren Schreurs turned to his agronomist and is now using predatory mites to control spotted mites across the whole farm.
Ms Meadows said: “Although Mr Watson and Mr Schreurs have people around them saying pest levels are up and they should be spraying they are saying no, I trust what is going to happen – I trust in the natural environment. It involves understanding, knowing what you’re looking at. Mr Watson did have to spray in a bad year when IPM didn’t work.”
Incentives may persuade some growers along the route of IPM and could be policy related or financial. For example, the Better Cotton Initiative offers a $1/bale financial incentive, and jeans manufacturer Levi is asking for 75% of its cotton to come up to this standard by next year.
“For Mr Watson, the driver for adoption needed to be money, even if it was only a little bit to get him started,” said Ms Meadows.
Q: Currently with EAMUs if we want new pesticides, we can use residue data generated in Europe. What will happen after Brexit? Will we be able to look wider or be more restricted?
A: Murray Smedley (MS): HSE has not commented on the use of EU data. The data owner can submit wherever they wish. We hope EU data can still be used for GB authorisations/EAMUs.
Q Given the high costs, do you think that any manufacturer will actually apply for a GB only authorisation rather than EU at the same time?
A: MS: It would seem less likely and dependent upon the commercial value versus GB only registration.
A: Harry Fordham: If the opportunity is available and GB will allow registration then I would suggest we could use that and look at doing so. It does depend on what approach CRD takes and whether it will allow this.
Q: What single action would have the greatest impact on making IPM strategies more applicable to and effective in broadacre crops?
A: Caroline Drummond: That more actives are taken off the approvals list forcing change fast. I am not advocating this but shocks drive innovation. It is not just one simple approach – it has to be appropriate, balanced and integrated.