A few weeks ago I gave a coursework presentation with a few fellow student colleagues at the RAU on the subject of the neonics moratorium in Europe, the implications it has had for farmers and crucially how they have adapted their practice. As part of the research process we were approached by a number of oil seed rape growers across the country who have been affected in various ways by the ban. It is clear that the east of the country has been far more severely affected but in general, most farmers seem to have been able to adapt and yields have not overwhelmingly suffered. For what it’s worth however, one of our key conclusions was that there simply has not been enough time to gather concrete and conclusive data. Another few years of moratorium would be beneficial to improve the evidence base. I realise this won’t go down well with many farmers but this is my prediction for what EFSA will say once they have finished reviewing the evidence (decision estimated by the end of this year/early 2017).
Yesterday, we saw in the farming press that George Eustice has rejected an emergency application from the NFU and AHDB for OSR growers to use clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam based products on 195,000ha of land this Autumn. This, it is argued, would be principally to fight against the threat of cabbage stem flea beetle. The application raised the argument that the only alternative (and bizarrely legal) methods of chemical control are pyrethroid sprays or foliar sprays which arguably have more of an impact on the wider biosphere.However, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) rejected the application on the grounds that it did not meet the criteria for an emergency authorisation. As a result, Mr Eustice took their advice and rejected the application. Whilst the news will be welcomed by pro-ban campaigners it is likely to looked upon with greying eyes by many in the farming community. Mr Eustice’s support rating is already under threat following comments about the ongoing dairy crisis.
From a conservation and farming point of view it is clear that research must go up a notch in relation to alternatives to chemical control. At the seminar where we presented our neonics paper another group spoke about the potential for a glyphosate ban in the future, a chemical product which faces many similar issues to neonics. Farmers cannot be blamed for being concerned. Oil Seed Rape attracts many insect ‘pests’ including CSFB, aphids, pollen beetles, seed weevils and the brassica pod midge, among others. Many already engage with ‘cultural control’ methods such as rotations and encouraging beneficial insects but many still argue that by reducing the chemical arsenal available to farmers the risk of crop failure increases. Further, the environmental impacts could be worse if farmers return to older chemical controls, such as pyrethroids, to curb the problems they face.
This raises further questions of whether farmers should be looking to diversify their cropping patterns to mitigate the risks and spread financial and agronomic risk across the business. Now farmers are not stupid and of course they would do this if it made economic and environmental sense. However, diversifying cropping has the potential to increase costs as well as spread risk and reduces opportunities for economies of scale. At a time when British arable producers (like their colleagues in the livestock sectors) are under immense financial pressure, partly due to poor prices as well as the huge delays in payments from the Rural Payments Agency, many would say that now is not the time to be risking even more change.
It must be a matter for individual farms as to how they adapt their businesses for the future but it seems clear where the trends are going – gross expectations of achieving higher outputs from a far less diversified set of inputs. I would argue that the businesses that begin taking risks and diversifying will be the farms that will do better in the long run.