28 April 2001

27

steps to self-regu lation

Hopes of keeping the pesticide tax at bay have been pinned on a 27-point plan. Tom Allen-Stevens explores its implications

MAYBE its the industrys preoccupation with foot-and-mouth. Or it could be the appalling weather. Either way, little thought has been directed at what happened, or more rather did not happen, in last months Budget.

We were saved from the threatened pesticide tax, but only just, says the Crop Protection Association (CPA), NFU, and other rural organisations. They believe that it was only last minute lobbying and a 27-point Pesticide Stewardship proposal that managed to stave it off.

"Growers should understand that we escaped the tax by a whisker. We have convinced the Government that voluntary regulation is the path that will bring most environmental benefit. The Government has said that if it doesnt, the tax will be back on the agenda," warns Dr Chris Wise from the NFU.

And it would prove to be a real financial body blow for the arable sector. The best estimates put the cost of a tax to the industry at £135m a year, with over 80% of it shouldered directly by growers. The CPAs proposals are set to cost growers about 10% of what they would have had to shell out, says CPAs Martin Savage, most of this going on training and work to sprayers.

What the CPA has suggested is the most far-reaching set of proposals that has yet been put forward. There are three key pivotal proposals: the formation of a biodiversity network is a new objective for the crop protection industry itself. The other two directly affect growers:

&#8226 a comprehensive survey of pesticide practice and usage

&#8226 the introduction of Crop Protection Management Plans (CPMP).

"Its a huge step given that there has never been any firm evidence that on-farm usage is a problem. It goes way beyond best farm practice," says Mr Savage. The plan rolled into action on April 1 and the first job, apart from setting up the stewardship consortium – the overseeing body – will be to get the survey under way.

"Theres a small problem with foot-and-mouth here. We do want to carry out the surveys face to face. That way we can be sure we get to know the true picture on farm, but we obviously cannot start until we can safely go on to farms."

The survey will look at how pesticides are used on farm – how they are stored, transferred to the tank, applied and containers disposed. The CPA recognise that there may be a difference between what they are told and what actually happens, so they are stressing that the survey is anonymous and confidential.

CPAs Patrick Goldsworthy will be overseeing the survey: "Id hate growers not to participate because they think its a form of policing them. The whole purpose is to establish the things that we are worst at so that we know where improvements need to be made."

One aspect that has already been earmarked for improvement is training and the various UK farming unions have the job of coming up with proposals to take this forward.

But theres a problem: "The NFU has recognised there is a large and immeasurable number of growers relying on grandfather rights," says Dr Wise. "We would like to see all sprayer operators certificated, but I think it is unrealistic to insist on everyone doing an NPTC test."

Something along the lines of the BASIS registration for crop advisers will be the preferred route. There would be a voluntary register of operators. Membership would be dependant on attending training courses and keeping up to date with developments. Operators would earn points for doing so and would need to acquire a certain number per year. Reading Crops might earn a point, while attending a full-blown training programme at a college would earn more.

But surely there should be some statutory measures? "Change comes about from understanding the issues, rather than being told what to do," says Dr Wise. "But we are being monitored. If growers turn their backs on this voluntary package, they will be walking straight into a tax."

Farms with fully qualified operators will also have to take new steps under the proposals. One of the biggest changes will be the CPMPs growers will need to draw up. If brought in, these management plans would be made at the start of the season and form whole farm pesticide strategies. The aim is to ensure pesticide usage has as little effect on the environment as possible.

How they will work in practice has not yet been decided, points out Mr Savage. The consortium will decide structure, content and process over the next eight months, with pilot schemes to start within a year. More widespread adoption is not likely for another 14 months after that.

It is a proposal that is likely to concern growers, however. With ACCS, LEAF and various other audits, before you even come to Government bureaucracy, there is suspicion this will pile up the paperwork even more.

Not so, says Mr Savage: "The target is to simplify what growers have to do while recognising the increasing importance of environmental factors." He is looking to work closely with organisations such as LEAF, which already has an environmental audit, and hopes that the ACCS protocols may be a base on which to build. He also recognises the University of Hertfordshires Environmental Management for Agriculture (EMA) software as a good starting point.

Wider picture

And it is the inclusion of the wider environmental picture which is seen as the biggest change in these proposals. "Environmental protection has always been high on the agenda, but this is a more proactive biodiversity initiative," points out Mr Savage.

This fits in more neatly with the Governments biodiversity action plan – a wider rural initiative to encourage target wildlife species, such as rare farmland birds, mammals and wild flowers. The CPA will look to appoint a biodiversity officer who will liase with Government departments, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the chemical manufacturers. The information would then be filtered down to growers.

Its set to be a two-way alliance: the CPA has long felt that Government receives a one-sided view of environmental issues from NGOs. This has shaped its policy and tended to land an unfair proportion of environmental problems at the door of agrochemicals, says the association. The hope is that the biodiversity officer may help to redress the balance.

Part of the green drive will be to get more environmental information on product labels. "We dont want more information – some labels are more akin to small books – we want to rationalise it, and this has to be done with the help of PSD. You need something similar to what you get with human medicines; the most important information is most prominent, simple and easy to read, but its all there if you want to read it."

Such measures are hoped to help infrequent users: for example, mixed farmers with just 100 acres of barley. They have been given a special mention as growers who may not be as aware of the regulations as specialist growers, although Mr Savage does not think this is a high risk group: "If youre unfamiliar with something you tend to take more care. Hopefully the survey will clear up these sorts of issues."

But will any of these proposals tackle the real problem of the small minority of growers who simply disregard best practice? This is the concern of former Farm Sprayer Operator of the Year Patrick Saynor. "These proposals sound good in principle, but I dont think theyll work in practice. The public do not see the vast majority of operators like myself who do a good job, just the careless practices of the small number of cowboys."

Spraying 480ha near Blandford Forum in Dorset, he takes a proactive role on the farm in ensuring best practice and is lined up for several more training courses this year. He feels even more training would be excessive: "Where do you draw the line? Before long Ill be more qualified than the agronomist and Ill spend so much of my time on courses I wont have enough time to do the job. They should bring in measures to keep out poor operators; basic training should be mandatory."

And Mr Savage admits this is an issue: "It only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel – just one careless spillage will pollute a whole catchment area. We do need to be able to catch those individual farmers who ignore best practice. After all, its likely thats how foot-and-mouth came in."