I usually put the earnest pills away during the holiday period and choose a piece of farming whimsy to write about. But hopefully by the time you read this, all the nauseating festive frivolity will have mercifully come to an end. So, let’s not prolong any merriment – let’s talk about endocrine disrupters.
Over the past few years, the European Commission seems to have declared war on crop protection materials such as herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. They’ve banned nearly half of them and are now eyeing up the other half. The next step seems to be to categorise a suite of active ingredients as endocrine disrupters. Once labelled as such, then they will be ripe for banning.
One key group under threat here is the triazole fungicides. If the EU did ban these fungicides it would be gob-smackingly bad regulation for a number of reasons.
See also: Take part in the EU’s consultation
First, they are widely used and are effective tools for controlling disease in a variety of crops. If they were banned then we are told by the agrochem manufacturers of the world that there is nothing in the development pipeline that would replace them.
If we lost them, we would have more disease and less crop. Some might see this prospect of the likelihood of a smaller UK crop as good news because, it might be argued, this would push up farmgate prices. But generally British agriculture has been producing less over the past 30 years. The result hasn’t been higher prices, the result has been more imports. Our trade gap in food and drink has doubled in real terms in the past 15 years from £10bn to £20bn.
If regulators take away our tools of production such as triazole fungicides, the net effect will be to suck in more imports from those places where the regulatory framework is more farm-production friendly. There are no plans to ban triazole fungicides in other parts of the world.
The other reason triazoles make an interesting case study is that in recent years the EU has called for lower thresholds of mycotoxins in wheat because of links between mycotoxins in foodstuffs and cancer. Using triazoles is an effective way to control mycotoxins. So the question to the commission is – are they really saying on the one hand they want farmers to reduce mycotoxin levels in wheat and at the same time ban one of the main tools we use to do it? It would be the antithesis of “joined-up regulation”.
Finally, triazoles make a good cause célèbre when it comes to explaining to the public that crop protection products are safe to use and can make food safer. Particularly persuasive here is the fact triazoles are also used in human medicines. A good example is Canesten which controls funguses on human skin. Canesten contains clotrimazole which, sure enough, is a triazole fungicide.
For those readers who don’t know which part of the anatomy Canesten is rubbed on to, let me tell you, but be warned this is not an answer for the faint-hearted – I use it on my feet to control athlete’s foot. Others, I am told, use it elsewhere.
If triazoles were banned, then farmers would be in the ridiculous situation that they could be prosecuted for having it in their spray sheds for use on wheat diseases but quite legally have it in the bathroom cabinet for use on the human anatomy.
See also: What do you think about this topic? Have your say on our website forums
So, the deliberations as to what should be included under the definition of endocrine disrupter are important. The good news is the commission is undertaking a public consultation on this issue. I would urge all farmers who use pesticides to respond.
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.