When the European Union banned farmers from using an important pesticide a year and a half ago, it confirmed the law of unintended consequences: As a result today, I’m applying more pesticides with less efficiency or precision. That’s bad for the environment, increases cost and puts food supply at risk.
This is what happens when regulators make decisions based on the emotional need to “do something” rather than on what science tells us about problems and solutions.
A new report from the Agricultural Industries Confederation, a trade body in the United Kingdom, illustrates the problem dramatically. It says that between lost opportunities in research and development and new prohibitions on farmers, questionable crop regulations could cost us nearly £4 billion per year (more than $6 billion USD). Because of these factors, the UK’s wheat production may meet only half of its full potential between now and 2030.
I chaired two workshops that contributed to the AIC report. For the first time participants were formally challenged to examine opportunities and threats to both the livestock and arable sector. This was the first time that businesses and organisations, covering the whole of agriculture had come together for an open discussion.
The end result was new economic models constructed on industry wide evidence that positively highlight the risk regulation can present. This is increasingly important when challenging regulators to fully understand the consequences of an action, many of which are not based on science.
The EU ban on neonicotinoids is a classic example. On my farm in Yorkshire, we know flea beetles will attack our crops from the moment they emerge from the soil. We benefitted from using neonicotinoid seed dressings as a precise means of protecting the crops through critical growth stages without the need for overall insecticide spraying.
This is an excellent example of precision farming, allowing us to put the right amount of pesticide in exactly the right place for the best overall effect. It’s a model of how advanced technologies can help farmers achieve economic and environmental sustainability. The product was banned for use in 2014 and we struggled to control the problem, requiring overall surface spraying of insecticide, not a good result for farming practice or the environment. Many farmers lost their entire crop or suffered severe damage because of flea beetle. As a result of the problem across the EU, some member states have asked for a derogation to use neonicotinoids because of recognized benefit and this includes pesticide sensitive Denmark.
The EU’s own studies were inconclusive but a ban was put in place rather than continue investigating the effects of neonics on bees and properly addressing the issue or risk and hazard. This is now forcing greatly increased use of insecticides and increasing the risk of resistance.
We host beehives on our farm and in discussion with the beekeeper he has no concerns about neonics. Seed dressings made sense to him, his risk was no crop being grown, no flowers, no honey.
Farming has and will rise to the challenge of producing safe and affordable food, however that success has created inexpensive food, whose production is neither understood, nor properly valued. Modifying methods of production by banning products without the benefit of science and through thoughtless regulation upsets a delicate balance of supply on a large scale.
That’s the power behind the new AIC report, the economic modelling behind the figures have a robustness that hasn’t been put into practice before and properly show the serious consequence of policy makers getting it wrong. The AIC I know would encourage the economic modelling to be carried out in other countries. This would build up the evidence of causal effect and further the understanding of supply and price impact across the world, which is so important when food security is a global issue.
A reliable food supply and a healthy environment require the same things: an economically sustainable farm business and the proper engagement of good science. Right now, too many of our regulations are threats to both and they are rarely held to account. The AIC are to be applauded for this timely initiative.
Paul Temple grows cereals and vegetables along with grazing beef cattle on a mixed arable farm in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Involved in the UK FSE trials for 3 years, Paul is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).