CPA chief on fight to keep crop protection tools

Pesticides face attack on all fronts from EU legislation, which could see many key actives being lost. Nick von Westenholz explains how the Crop Protection Association is fighting to ensure growers still have the right tools to grow crops

Challenges for UK farmers

What are the key challenges for pesticides?

There are a number of separate areas that are coming together to form a single challenge to arable growers by changing the way the EU regulates pesticides. This threat will see products being taken off the market, leaving farmers with fewer actives to tackle weeds, diseases and pests as they go about their business of growing crops.

There are currently four areas of particular concern:

First, a review of what endocrine disrupters are, which could see some key triazoles, alongside other chemicals, being classified as EDs and, consequently, withdrawn.

Second, a review of the guidance documents used by the European Food Safety Authority. For instance, EFSA is currently consulting on its bee guidance, and its initial draft could potentially lead to the withdrawal of a huge proportion of products.

Third, the European Commission is circumventing the regulatory process and taking products off the market, as we saw recently with neonicotinoids.

Finally, the implementation of environmental directives from the EU, such as the Water Framework Directive.

There is much speculation about which products we are in danger of losing. It is inevitable we will lose more, but the question is how many? It is difficult to say and there is a lot of crossover between the four areas.

But the good news is there is still a lot up for discussion, as decisions haven’t been made.

Nick von Westenholz in a minute

What is your background?

 I come from a farming background, having grown up on the family arable farm in east Hertfordshire – where I now live. I studied politics and then law as a postgraduate and am a qualified barrister. I then embarked on a career in political lobbying, working at the NFU in its government affairs team before becoming the chief executive of the CPA in 2013.

What are your interests?

I spend the summer watching and occasionally playing cricket (I’m in the process of resurrecting a local Sunday cricket team). In autumn and winter, I play field sports (and ski if I get half the chance).

What is the CPA and what does it do?

We are the trade organisation for pesticide manufacturers in the UK, with members ranging from multinationals with R&D and manufacturing to smaller suppliers in the garden and amenity sectors.

Our main role is representing and promoting the interests of industry, educating and informing the public and policymakers of the benefits of members’ products. We work to ensure products are used responsibly, so they are safe. We also interact with the public on how crop protection products are regulated.

We are not just UK focused, but also keep track of developments in Europe, as pesticide legislation falls under EU law. The CPA is a member of the European Crop Protection Association and we support it in lobbying the EU. For example, we will help lobby UK MEPs.

EU directives – a cause for concern

What is the CPA doing to overcome the EU challenge? 

There is a lot of lobbying and involvement in consultations at the moment. With the endocrine disrupter review, an impact assessment is being carried out at the moment and the report is due to be published at the end of this year. We need to keep lobbying, because if regulators agree that triazoles are endocrine disrupters, we could see many fungicides lose their approval.

Another example is the EFSA review of its bee guidance. Under current proposals, it’s possible that 100% of insecticides would fail the Tier 1 assessment as part of the approvals process. This could impose big changes on insecticides by making the process tougher.

The European Commission clearly wanted to rubber stamp the new guidance document and use it as part of the assessment process as soon as possible. But intensive lobbying from us and our European allies resulted in the officials pausing and putting proper thought into the guidance.

The worrying thing is that you have to continually bang on the door to remind policymakers that there are implications for food production.

The fear is that in taking such a precautionary approach to pesticides, they don’t fully take account of the risk of losing production at a time when global food demand is rising.

How do you see the CPA’s role changing?

Lobbying and being actively involved in consultations is taking up increasing amounts of time. I also see the CPA working harder in targeting the public and politicians to get regulation right. For example, removing products such as neonicotinoid seed treatments do have significant implications.

How do you persuade the wider public that pesticides are essential?

It is very difficult. One interesting observation is that many people adopt new technology such as smartphones, gadgets and tablets, recognising the benefits to their lives.

But when it comes to food, they seem reluctant to accept innovations such as larger livestock farms – the public feels uncomfortable about it. Our response has to be transparent about the technology and educate them that the industry relies on technology to produce safe and affordable food – that is the challenge.

Open Farm Sunday is a good example of helping to engage with the public and the BBC Harvest programme also gave a balanced view. We are working with distributors and other parts of the food chain to help get the message across, as we have common interests in food safety.

Importance of the voluntary approach

Is the voluntary approach the way to save key actives?

A part of the CPA’s activities is working with the industry on stewardship to help get the message across that unless we maintain high standards of use, we will lose other actives as a result of bans.

These voluntary initiatives can work, but it requires a lot of effort to get messages across such as the one about metaldehyde. Historically, these voluntary initiatives have taken a broader approach, but the metaldehyde stewardship group is taking a novel approach, identifying hotspots and targeting meaningful measures that should be adopted.

This more targeted approach is going as far as individual farms and fields in a catchment. So there is a better chance these farms will take on the measures. Hopefully, it will work.

I would prefer to see the voluntary approach work. It is a tried and tested approach. Just look at the Voluntary Initiative and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. But it’s important we continue to see results. Farmers must understand they have a role to play.

There is a risk that if we see another tough year and farmers feel pressure to treat and ignore the voluntary messages, we’ll continue to see problems with water quality. This would risk the active ingredient being gone in two to three years.

The recent ban on methiocarb slug pellets only emphasises how important it is that farmers observe best practice. The loss of a further product in this area would pose serious problems for slug control.

Confidence is crucial

What has been the effect of the way the neonicotinoid ban came about?

Seeing neonicotinoids being banned outside the proper approvals process in an already very highly regulated industry has affected confidence.

Clarity and confidence in the process is crucial, as it takes, on average, more than a decade and up to $300m just to get one active to market and if pesticide manufacturers see the EU taking an active off market on a whim driven by politics, they will question whether investing in EU markets is worth the risk.

We are already seeing the effects, with a recent report highlighting a big drop in investment in EU crop protection while firms continue to invest in crop protection technology in other areas of the world. EU growers risk losing out.

There has to be a scientific process in place if new evidence does emerge. This evidence has to be sound and officials satisfied it is strong enough to make the decision to withdraw the product.

How crucial is bee health to the CPA?

We are actively involved with the government’s upcoming consultation on its pollinator strategy, focusing on pollinator health.

As a farmer, I know bees are important and it is not in our interests to see a decline in bees. Chemical firms themselves see bees as an essential part of farming. Beekeepers highlight that bad weather, habitat and diseases are key to their decline – the problems are multi-factorial, it’s not just about pesticides.

What other key initiatives are you taking in 2014?

We have just launched an initiative highlighting the issue of illegal pesticides. There are no figures on illegal pesticide use in the UK, but we know it is a big issue in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is vital we don’t get complacent, so we’re raising awareness of the risk.

This includes how to spot illegal products such as ones with suspicious-looking packaging, ones that are suspiciously cheap and contents that look different when opened.

There is also a farm assurance aspect, as using them is in breach of Red Tractor rules, as well as the risk of the product failing to do its job.

Thames Valley Police has launched its own campaign to find out more, as there is increasing interest by law-enforcement officials. Criminals may see illegal pesticides as an easy way to make money, so it’s crucial we don’t make it easy for them.