Opinion: Plant protection tools needlessly at risk

Like most people, I used to think a risk and a hazard were essentially the same.

Indeed, my dictionary describes a risk as “the possibility of suffering harm or danger; a hazard”. And it says a hazard “is a potential source of danger or peril; a risk”. So, my interpretation was not far out. But the EU sees it differently, particularly with regard to plant protection products.

It interprets the risk of applying any toxic substance, however small the dose or massive the dilution, to a crop as potentially harmful to consumers and says such products should be banned. EU policy is to identify and eliminate every trace of toxins from our crops because, it says, they pose a hazard.

See also: What do you think about this topic? Have your say on our website forums.

On such obscure syllogisms are our future crop protection possibilities decided. By the same reasoning coffee, which contains high levels of toxin, should be banned. And potatoes, were they to be introduced today, would never pass the food police because of the poisons they contain. Low-level toxins are found in a wide range of plants and I read, a few weeks ago, that traces of naturally occurring arsenic had been identified in a breakfast cereal fed to children.

And so it is that, unless MEPs and European officials can be persuaded otherwise, EU farmers may lose the right to use 87 of the 250 active plant protection products which have been applied safely for years, to crops.

This is in addition to the EU-inspired reduction of more than half the active molecules that were allowed prior to 2001. Consultants Andersons have calculated the latest proposed cuts would have a negative effect on annual farm incomes of £1.73bn (compared with total UK farming income recently estimated by Defra at £5.6bn in 2013).

All sectors of the agrochem and farming industries are lobbying hard in Brussels to get the proposals modified. But although they are “trying their best”, as Scott Boothey, UK managing director of Dow AgroSciences, told me the other day, there is little optimism they will reverse the plans. Meanwhile, such firms are searching for other viable molecules that might replace those about to be lost, without creating “hazards”.

But it costs millions of pounds and takes at least seven years for a single new product to be discovered and jump the numerous regulatory hurdles before it is ready for farm use. And apart from the cost and time constraints, chemical companies obviously consider payback possibilities. This means that while broad-acre crops such as wheat and barley are likely to be regarded as priorities for attention, minor crops, such as fruit and vegetables, with specialist needs might be neglected.

In most other countries around the world, farmers would turn to biotechnology for some of the answers. Indeed many have already done so with great success. But as I have mentioned before, that option is denied to us, again by the European Luddites. So, if this misguided pesticide policy is not overturned, what will be the outcome?

I suggest that the production and yield of some crops in Europe and the UK may decline further to levels insufficient to feed our population. But the EU’s growing number of people will still need to be fed so replacements will be sought on world markets. Imports, almost certainly produced using chemicals that will have been banned in Europe, will flood into the community even faster than now. Is this why we pay MEPs and the commission huge sums from our taxes?

David Richardson
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.

See more