Farming often gets a bad press. In the developed world it is, for example, a protected sector enjoying relatively high levels of subsidy which, at least in the UK, goes disproportionately to larger landowners. More generally, farmers are often held responsible for environmental damage (for a recent example, see Scale of ‘nitrate timebomb’ revealed). This does not do justice to highly productive farmers who care deeply about the countryside.
In particular, pesticides are considered by some as a scourge to be got rid of rather than an aid to efficient, environmentally friendly food production. This is reflected in the status of organic farming in many people’s eyes and the disproportionate amount we read about it, despite it accounting for just 6.2% of farmland in Europe in 2015 (despite more than doubling since 2002, according to EU statistics).
This focus on what continues to be a niche sector adds weight to the argument that all farming should move in this direction, with continued pressure to phase out a number of useful pesticides. Already, the crop protection market is under intense pressure, with reapproval being based on theoretical hazard rather than actual risk. But there is a particular focus on two key materials at present: the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (or neonics) and the herbicide glyphosate (sold under the Roundup brand by Monsanto).
In 2013, the EU put a ban on the most widely used neonicotinoids, although the UK government at the time considered this unnecessary, based on the scientific evidence. However, this month Michael Gove, the newish Environment Secretary (and previously not an obvious friend of the ‘Green Blob’) has changed the official stance and supports a proposed ban on neonics except in greenhouses. He argues that the weight of evidence now supports such a ban (UK ‘will support’ neonicotinoid pesticide ban).
This has been generally welcomed by the organic movement and anti-pesticide campaigners, but they certainly don’t see this as anything other than another step towards their final goal. For a good summary of their arguments, read this opinion piece from Hannah Lownsbrough (director of SumOfUs, which claims to ‘stop big corporations behaving badly’): Michael Gove is backing a ban on bee-killing pesticides. But that’s only a start.
Although the British government is now likely to vote for the extended ban on neonics, the Environment Secretary continues to support reapproval of glyphosate in Europe. However, the UK vote was insufficient for a decision to be made (EU hits deadlock over license for Roundup herbicide). 14 countries voted in favour of a five year extension to the licence, as proposed by the Commission, but nine voted against and five abstained.
Last month, the Council failed to vote at all on the Commission’s original proposal of a ten year licence extension. If a second vote on the current proposal again results in a stalemate, then the Commission has the right to bring in its current proposal, but the political sensitivity of this means it would prefer the Member State governments (ie the Council) to decide. Reuters report that the French government would like to see a three year extension to the licence, and this could in practice end up as the way to break the deadlock.
Treatment of pesticides is becoming more and more like GM crops, where entrenched political positions mean that decisions cannot be made by the Council, despite favourable recommendations from independent scientists working on behalf of EFSA. The pro-organic, anti-pesticide movement has the bit between its teeth and sees continued progress being made to fulfil its agenda.
The environmentalist lobby is firmly entrenched in Brussels and in many national capitals and continually punches above its weight. In this, it is helped by the instincts of the majority of citizens, who don’t understand that tiny traces of pesticides present no danger to them or that rDNA technology is not such a major change to crop breeding as it has been painted. When asked general questions about such things, without putting them into the context of their role in delivering a healthy, affordable food supply, their gut reaction is often to be negative.
The reality, as ever, is somewhat different. No-one can properly explain the reason for the large fluctuations in the population of bees, for example, and, to my knowledge (although I stand to be corrected) there is no evidence to suggest that countries that have banned neonics have any less of a problem with colony collapse than those that continue to use them. Insecticides are by their nature, of course, harmful to insects to a greater or lesser degree, and neonicotinoids are no exception. But the real impact an only be determined by looking at the evidence in actual use.
Similarly, glyphosate is only under such pressure because of a dubious reclassification by the IARC as a probable carcinogen. This single, disputed, opinion has been enough to give the campaigners leverage to pressurise gullible politicians into voting for a ban.
In practice, these decisions are considered and voted on in isolation, often with the good intention of protecting the public and the environment, but in practical reality to assuage the green lobby. Farming, whether ‘conventional’ (ie efficient) or ‘organic’ (ie, lower yielding) has an enormous impact on the environment. Whether this is good, bad or neutral is in the eye of the beholder.
The truth is that – unless we put a higher value on other species than we do on our own – sufficient food has to be produced to feed the current and future population. If we tried to do this using an organic approach, we would need to use considerably more land, destroying existing wildlife habitats (though creating others).
Since no synthetic fertilizer would be permitted, we would have to move to a vegetarian diet, since meat production would be unsustainable. Ironically, though, we would still need to maintain and graze large numbers of farm animals to provide sufficient manure as a nitrogen source to boost yields. Meanwhile, losses of crops to pests and diseases would increase considerably in the absence of modern crop protection agents, and the need to plough to control weeds would release more organic carbon from the soil.
Banning useful pesticides, whose risks are understood and can be well managed, is the thin end of a wedge that could in the longer run both reduce our food security and have a big environmental impact.