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The time is right to turn away from chemical pesticides

As the Government consults on 'The future of food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit' Sandra Bell makes the case for pesticide reduction.

April 2018

Drastic declines in insects and farmland birds, linked to high pesticide use, have hit the headlines recently. These latest reports came from Germany and France but the UK’s State of Nature assessments show that our own birds and butterflies are not faring any better.

And now a new report by Pesticides Action Network has revealed that UK farmers are using more toxic pesticides and on more land - grim news for our struggling wildlife.

Pesticide reduction must be at the heart of the UK’s new farming policy; with support for farmers to adopt alternative ways to protect their crops.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of a bee. We are close to having a ban on bee-harming neonicotinoids on all outdoor crops. The scientific evidence for extending the current partial ban is overwhelming, the UK has already committed to a tougher ban and a vote could be held in the EU in May.

A tougher ban on neonics would be great news for bees. But insecticides like neonics are not the only pesticides affecting pollinators. Herbicides reduce the availability of pollen and nectar, and fungicides have recently been implicated in bumblebee declines.

Pesticide reduction is advocated by weighty studies on pollinators including the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Even Defra’s Chief Scientist now says that we are using too many pesticides on our farms to be safe for the environment: “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems,” “This can and should be changed.”

Saving the bees (and the butterflies and birds) is a strong enough reason to reduce pesticide use, and such action would also help clean up our water and cut residues in food.

And are pesticides really a farmer’s friend? Insecticides are meant to kill insects so it’s not surprising that they are harming the natural predators that farmers rely on as well as the intended pest target – for example neonics have been found to harm the carabid beetles that helpfully munch on slugs. As Hertfordshire farmer John Cherry puts it:

“It has been calculated the ‘good’ bugs outnumber the ‘bad’ bugs by a factor of 1,700:1. So the chances are collateral damage by insecticides will take out a lot of the guys looking after our wheat and controlling potential pests”.

But farmers need confidence that if they move away from reliance on chemicals they will still be able to protect their crops.

There are some exciting new developments in robotics that could lead to precision pest and weed control. But it’s not all about high tech solutions – we need real Integrated Pest Management with non-chemical methods at its heart. Innovative farmers are experimenting already - for example using companion cropping and no-till farming to improve soil and cut chemical use – but these need more research and better knowledge sharing.

An independent advisory service is critical – too many agronomists are linked to pesticide companies – so they are hardly going to advocate a reduction in use. A study in Italy recently found that farmers saved money by drastically cutting insecticide use and paying for insurance against pest damage instead. Friends of the Earth is working with farmers to identify the best way to help them reduce pesticide use here.

Michael Gove says he wants the UK to be a leader in environmental protection. But on pesticides we’ve got some catching up to do: Denmark has already set, and is meeting, a target to reduce its pesticide load by 40%.

We need a clear ambition in the UK to cut the use of harmful pesticides and mechanisms to support farmers to achieve this – nature and food production will benefit if we farm with nature instead of against it.

Sandra Bell is a Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth

Follow @sandrambell @friends_earth

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.