I’m not qualified to apportion blame for the decline in bee populations and I’m certainly not here as an apologist for the farming industry but the reality of the situation for growers is that firstly the neonicotinoid ban is in place and secondly that pollinator populations continue to decline – both of which have to be addressed by growers and government because the financial and political implications for failing to address the decline in pollinators are too great for growers and government to ignore.
Much of the debate over the economic impact of the neonicotinoid ban is based on the claims of financial losses made by the Humbolt Forum for Food and Agriculture in the report “the value of neonicotinoid seed treatment”. This report was funded by Bayer and Syngenta – both manufacturers of neonicotinoid seed treatments.
In their report the Humbolt Forum claimed that a ban could cost wheat growers in the UK £450m; and oilseed rape growers £170m
These are huge numbers that are difficult to understand and quantify until you break them down into a figure that every grower will be able to understand and compare.
Then we see that the Humbolt Forum claims the cost of the ban is £230 for every hectare of oilseed rape in the UK and £225 for every hectare of wheat in the UK
Are these predicted losses credible? No – of course not.
Growers might expect a loss but unless all pesticides are withdrawn from the marketplace leaving growers defenceless and we suffer a plague of biblical proportions its difficult to see how losses of this magnitude over the whole of the UK are possible.
But sadly that hasn’t stopped the NFU and DEFRA quoting the Humbolt Forum and basing their strategy on these implausible claims of catastrophic financial loss and collapsing output
So if the Humbolt Forum has exaggerated the losses what is the likely economic impact of the neonic ban?
With the support of a couple of independent agronomists I set out to quantify the cost of the neonicotinoid ban to my farming business.
Here you can see a comparison between the cost of a neonicotinoid seed dressing pest regime and a spray applied pesticide regime
For those of you who advocate organic and agroecological farming practice this section might be uncomfortable but please bear with me because the reality is that over 90% of growers in the UK use pesticides – and its these growers who are concerned about the financial implications of the ban
Following the Rachael Carson Memorial Lecture given by Charles Benbrook on the environmental impact of neonicotinoids in the USA I took the decision to stop using neonicotinoids a couple of years ago on my farm. Expecting an argument from my independent agronomist when I informed him of my decision I was surprised when he said “OK. I can cope”
His pragmatic response is supported by other agronomists including the Assoc of Independent Crop Consultants “The loss of neonicotinoids in the combinable crop sector, oil seed rape, winter wheat and barley, would not, at this moment in time threaten crop viability but would make control of pests and the diseases they transmit more difficult.”
And here is the same cost comparison but this time for oilseed rape
Since imposing a voluntary neonicotinoid ban on my farm I have not suffered any uncontrollable pest attack or a reduction in expected yield – yields have been as expected or better than expected.
So the headline figures of my comparison here are that my voluntary ban on neonicotinoids has cost me £2-20/ha in oilseed rape (not the £230/ha as predicted by the Humbolt Forum) and in wheat I’ve saved £13ha (not lost £225ha as predicted by the Humbolt Forum)
I think we can now be confident that the imminent collapse of the combinable crop sector, as has been predicted by the Humbolt Forum, will not happen. So now the question now has to be how do we growers move on to limit the impact of pesticides on pollinators and beneficial insects in the post neonicotinoid era?
I would suggest that these tables above offer a draft pesticide regime that begins to address the impact of pesticide on pollinators. I’m not claiming that this is a perfect response – even a satisfactory response – we know that Hallmark is safer with bees but has an impact on beneficial insects and the evidence from Prof Brown demonstrates that Hallmark has a detrimental effect on bumblebee development.
At best this is a short-term response but I am trying to show that with understanding and sympathetic management it is possible for growers and agronomists to limit the impact of their pesticide regimes on pollinators – there is no need to go back to the bad old days just because neonicotinoids have been withdrawn – and there is new chemistry coming that may help mitigate the impact on beneficial insects.
And my model can be improved. I received an email from a grower in Somerset who stated that he had changed to using the Mavrick branded pesticide to limit the impact of his pesticide regime on pollinators. Unexpectedly he has found that he does not now have a significant slug problem on his farm. He believes that because the Mavrick is ‘safe’ with beetles the numbers of carabid beetles on his farm has increased and the beetles are predating the slugs eggs. So now not only is he mitigating the impact of his pesticide regime on bees he’s benefiting financially because, whilst Mavrick is more expensive than generic pyrethroids, he is now making a saving on his slug control that is more than compensating him for the additional cost of the Mavrick pesticide.
It’s this sort of observational evidence that starts to signpost a practical low cost response that DEFRA should be advocating for growers to adopt in the short term in order to limit both the financial and environmental implications of the neonicotinoid ban
In the longer term we growers need DEFRA to fund and facilitate research that leads to a future where growers can achieve adequate pest control without impacting on pollinators and beneficial insects – and we need a robust system to disseminate that information.
Firstly DEFRA needs to recognise that the Humbolt Forum has exaggerated the financial impact of the neonicotinoid ban and DEFRA has to stop supporting agribusiness in its defence of neonicotinoids, Secondly DEFRA has to take seriously its commitment to the EU 2009 sustainable use of pesticides directive. The directive says that “member states shall take all necessary measures to promote where possible Integrated Pest Management over chemical methods”
To achieve the UK government’s commitments to the sustainable use of pesticides directive we need DEFRA to fund and facilitate research into the following areas:
- integrated pest management (IPM). There’s good advice on integrated strategies for growers on the HGCA website that knowledge needs to be built on and adopted by farmers.
- conventionally bred varieties tolerant to pests and/or the infections that pests transmit. We already have varieties that are tolerant to pests like orange blossom midge and tolerant to viruses such as barley mosaic virus. Our increasing knowledge of new conventional plant breeding techniques is opening up the potential for beneficial tolerance traits in new varieties.
- potential for companion cropping (push-pull technology that’s successful in Africa) to be adapted for use in the UK. There has been some interesting research demonstrating that companion planting of legumes in oilseed rape can limit damage from flea beetle in the autumn
- changes to farming practice and the agriculture environment schemes that promote a whole farmed environment that is not only safe for pollinators and beneficial insects but promotes an increase in the populations of pollinators and beneficial insects. Its not sufficient to provide habitat for pollinations in the form of wildflowers in odd corners of the farm when the cropped area is a no-fly zone.
As a grower I find the current situation very frustrating.
We undoubtable have the scientific expertise in this country to develop a future where the whole farmed environment promotes an increase in the populations of beneficial insects; and we have the growers and agronomists to deliver a whole farmed environment that is safe for beneficial insects – we just need DEFRA and its ministers to take the lead and help in the realisation of a whole farmed environment that promotes beneficial insects.
There’s more detail on my website and also I would like to recommend the Friends of the Earth report ‘Farmers need bees; bees need farmers’