20 June 1998

ZONE-ING IN ON BUFFERS

The Environment Agency came under fire from growers at an Arable Research Institute Association meeting considering water pollution by pesticides.

Peter Grimshaw reports

TIME is running out for careless sprayer operators. Tighter controls and chemical taxes lie ahead for the whole industry if individual farmers fail to adopt tougher procedures of their own accord, and soon.

That was the message from all sides when growers, scientists and regulators got together at IACR Long Ashton. High on the agenda was the much-aired topic of buffer zones for crop spraying.

Andy Croxford heads a four-man team, responsible for ecotoxicology and hazardous substances at the Environment Agency, with a £3m a year budget for sampling and analysis. ARIA members accused him of failing to provide clear guidelines, a year after the same questions had been posed by the same people. When would the industry know exactly what was required, they asked?

Measure up

How should buffer zones be managed – by cropping, bare soil or natural vegetation? Where was the zone supposed to be measured from – the edge of the ditch or bank, the edge of the water, or the centre of the stream? What about dried-up ditches? Did they qualify as watercourses?

Again, where was the field-ward edge of the zone located – at the position of the first delivery nozzle or spout? Or where chemical was actually deposited?

If were going to have inspectors round with tape measures, we need to know what we are talking about, Mr Croxford was told. Another grower said he was totally confused by agency figures for groundwater contamination, including compounds such as 2,4-D that were no longer used by farmers. Mr Croxford admitted that he wasnt sure whether figures for pesticide contamination were the result of real developments or because the agency was getting better at finding the compounds, but he said 2,4-D came from amenity applications.

He went on to explain that 400 products containing 100 active ingredients now had buffer zone stipulations on their labels. But he admitted the system had proved difficult to enforce and compliance had been poor. "It takes no account of local factors that may reduce the risk to the environment," he said.

Taking up this theme, Andrée Carter, from the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre, Cranfield University, speculated that future registrations might include regional recommendations that allowed for local factors. There were groans from the audience at this further potential complication of the regulations, but few doubted that controls were destined to become increasingly severe.

Pressure

Warwickshire farmer David Brightman, who chairs the NFUs Pesticides Working Group, warned that pressure was on water authorities. The EU drinking water directive had put the onus on them to eliminate pesticides from water supplies, and this was costly. The Rio Earth Summit had established the polluter pays principle, so the cost would inevitably be passed to farmers, probably as a pesticides tax.

"The Government is minded to produce what it calls economic instruments – thats what the proposed pesticides tax is called," he said. "They could be extremely serious. It has been estimated that they will need to amount to 130% of the cost of the pesticides to have any real effect on chemicals in groundwater."

Meanwhile, buffer zones would be increasingly costly in lost yields and in management time, while the government was also planning to introduce regulations under the EU Groundwater Directive in the near future. While these would cover all industries, they could add a further £300m to agricultures costs. On top of all that, there was a raft of other potential regulatory measures that would make life more difficult and expensive for arable farmers.

"The only way we can prevent even more restrictions is more self restraint," Mr Brightman warned. But there was a crumb of good news. Mr Brightman revealed that the Pesticides Forum has been given a strong hint by the Department of the Environment that it will back off if farmers do their own thing to prevent water pollution.

Just where do you start measuring a pool or stream for a buffer zone?