Opinion: Let’s take crop protection fight to Brussels

So, did you vote? If you didn’t, you are a typical Brit, as only 30% of us can usually be bothered to turn out for EU elections.

In fact, you are also more typical than atypical as a European, because across the EU the turnout is only 40%. Unless of course we are talking Belgium here, where nine out of 10 of the population are keen to place a cross on the EU ballot paper. But then again, you could argue it’s a bit more of a local affair for the Belgians. If that appears to be a bit dismissive about the land that gave us TinTin, Audrey Hepburn and Trappist beer, then I apologise because all three things have helped sustain me through various episodes of my life, although not necessarily in that order. In fact, if Captain Haddock turned up in Breakfast at Tiffanys supping a Chimay it might be all too much.

Anyway, back to the things that don’t turn me on – Brussels. Like or loathe the place, it does have an impact on our everyday lives as farmers. Many of us could find ourselves in sprayer cabs next September spraying pyrethoids on to our emerging oilseed rape to stave off the flea beetle menace. That’s because Brussels, or the European Commission to be more exact, has banned neonicotinoid seed coatings. Hence, just when you’d rather be spending your September evenings supping a Belgian beer on your patio, Brussels has decreed you must be confined to your sprayer cab because, apparently, squirting pyrethoids is better for bees than coating your seeds with neonics.

And that, I suppose, is one reason why voting in EU elections is important. I am told by the people in the know that, in the five-year lifetime of the new European Parliament, the commission could ban half the actives we now have. We could lose most of the key tools from our crop production toolbox. If Brussels decides on the wider definition of ‘endocrine disrupter’ then it could wipe out all manner of substances – to the point where chocolate could technically be designated an endocrine disrupter and so you could feed it to your kids but not spray it on your wheat! Similarly, triazole fungicides could be banned, the irony being that triazole chemistry is used in sprays to control athelete’s foot or thrush. So you can slap it on with gay abandon as long as you keep it in the bathroom. Keeping them in the spray shed would be in breach of the law and crop assurance.

It would seem the commission has been persuaded by the environmental NGOs that us farmers are using dirty old cheap chemistry in growing our crops and if they ban them then we will simply use newer, more benign, more expensive chemistry. The sad fact is, as blackgrass sufferers will tell you, that if they lost Kerb (another threatened chemical) there is actually no new chemistry to use. This is partly because the agrochemical giants have stopped investing in European agriculture because they know a badly regulated agricultural market when they see one. What in fact the commission is doing is emptying the crop production toolbox to the point where we will probably have to wind down production at a time when we are told the world is in need of more food. The net effect of that will be that European crop production will be diverted to those parts of the world where crop farmers still have access to the agrochemicals banned in the EU. It is regulation straight from the madhouse.

So it is time the farming voice set its sights on Brussels and sharpened up its lobby. There is much to play for.

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Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip. He is vice-president of the NFU

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