The recent ruling by the Appeal Court that government did not breach European laws to ensure safe crop spraying is welcome – but there is still work to be done, writes Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association
Earlier this month, pesticides campaigner Georgina Downs lost her long-running legal battle with DEFRA over the government’s policy on crop spraying. The Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in favour of DEFRA, overturning last November’s High Court judgment that government had failed to protect residents from possible harm caused by exposure to pesticides during spraying.
This Appeal Court ruling is a victory for common sense, providing welcome confirmation that current regulations, based on the best available scientific evidence and supported by industry-wide stewardship programmes such as the Voluntary Initiative, ensure that pesticides can be used safely and effectively in the farmed environment.
The UK’s independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides has already said that introducing buffer zones for crop spraying would offer no public health benefits, while research carried out by CRD, the government’s pesticide regulator, indicates that most people have no objections to current arrangements for crop spraying.
Many hundreds of thousands of people live and work in the countryside where crop protection is carried out, yet claims of adverse health effects remain anecdotal, scientifically unproven and extremely rare.
The Court of Appeal ruling upholds and reflects that reality.
We recognise that some people do have concerns, and we continue to support voluntary, locally-based arrangements – building on the NFU’s Good Neighbour Initiative – as the best way to meet their specific information needs.
DEFRA has also announced plans to consult on measures to improve the availability of information for residents. The crop protection sector will continue to work with government and our industry partners to promote responsible stewardship, transparency and best practice in all areas of pesticide use.
But any new arrangements must be reasonable, proportionate and practicable for the farming industry.
We must not lose sight of the fact that pesticides are essential to maintain an adequate supply of high quality, affordable food.
Without pesticides to keep weeds, pests and diseases in check, crop yields would fall by around a third – something we can ill afford at a time of heightened concern about food security.
With the world’s population already approaching 7bn and set to exceed 9bn by 2050, agriculture needs every available technology – including pesticides – to meet future food needs and tackle the emerging challenges of climate change and resource conservation.
That stark reality is all too often overlooked, but it is the reason society needs to rethink its attitude towards modern, science-based agriculture.It is time to stand up for the enormous benefits pesticides bring to agriculture and food production, and to champion the farming community’s impressive record of responsible stewardship and partnership with the food industry.
Pesticides are used by professional, qualified operators. 85% of land is sprayed with sprayers tested under the National Sprayer Testing Scheme. The National Register of Sprayer Operators has 20,000 members, and nearly 2m ha of land is covered by Crop Protection Management Plans.
Current regulations, supported by effective industry stewardship, ensure that about 70% of food consumed in the UK contains no pesticide residues. Where residues occur they are well below legal limits and pose no food safety issues, as evidenced by the most recent survey of fruit and vegetables given to schoolchildren under the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme.
That is a record to be proud of.
Pesticides are among the most thoroughly tested and strictly regulated chemicals in Europe. Each new product takes at least 9 years and some £150m to develop. More than 200 scientific studies on a pesticide’s impact on human health and the environment must be completed and independently assessed by regulators as posing no unacceptable risk before it can be approved.
Enormous progress has been made by the crop protection sector to research and develop safer, more environmentally friendly products that are target-specific, degrade quickly and do not accumulate in the food chain.
In medicine, ‘intensive’ care has positive connotations. Not so ‘intensive’ agriculture. Perhaps the dramatic success of the Green Revolution in boosting farm productivity allowed a sense of complacency about the future availability and affordability of food.
That perception needs to change. How we feed a growing world population in the face of climate change and declining land and water availability is one of the most significant issues facing today’s society.
Farmers will need continued access to the most advanced technologies available – including pesticides – to keep pace.