THE UK STORY
FARMERS IN EUROPE are learning the realities of farming without neonicotinoids. A two-year restriction on three crop protection products (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) went into effect a year ago on December 1, 2013.
PHOTO: WILLIAM EMMETT LOOKING AT HIS DAMAGED OILSEED RAPE ON HIS FARM AT MAIDENHEAD, BERKSHIRE.
The European Commission’s decision to institute a ban on the use of these products on flowering crops attractive to bees was full of controversy. Many questioned the science used to support the need for the ban and they questioned the political motivation behind the ruling. It left farmers across the European Union (EU) frustrated and concerned for the future of their crops.
“We are about productive agriculture and competitive agriculture, and that involves technology and scientific evidence and sensible legislation that allow our farmers to thrive and grow,” says Guy Gagen, chief arable adviser for the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales.
This fall was the first crop of winter oilseed rape (OSR) planted in the United Kingdom (UK) since the ban took effect; previously as much as 70 per cent of the crop was treated with a product containing a neonicotinoid-based active ingredient.
Despite the restrictions they were under and the crop failures seen as a result of large striped flea beetle damage in spring sown OSR, British farmers were optimistic heading into the winter crop planting season which began in August.
The crops emerged quite quickly — but just as quickly the insect pests flew in and started their damage. OSR planted in August managed to escape the brunt of the damage. However, fields planted during the first half of September were slow to establish as the UK experienced its driest September on record. This delay left the crop more vulnerable to cabbage stem flea beetles.
By mid-September, anecdotal reports of damage caused by cabbage stem flea beetles were widespread. That prompted HGCA — the cereals and oilseeds division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board — to commission a ‘snapshot assessment’ report of winter OSR damage caused by the beetle in England and Scotland.
The assessment was conducted during the week of September 22 – 29 by a group of regional agronomists across 30 counties. The area assessed (32,000 hectares) was equivalent to five per cent of the national area of winter OSR and results were scaled up to provide regional and national estimates.
According to Caroline Nicholls, research and knowledge transfer manager (pests and agronomy) for HGCA, at the time of the assessment:
• Close to 50% of the OSR crop was lost in some counties
• Only about 14% of the crop had grown past the at-risk stage
• 41% of OSR was at the growth stage considered particularly vulnerable
• 6.2% of fields had beetle infestations above control thresholds
Overall, about 2.7 per cent of the total crop had already been lost; but Nicholls points out that the national average masks local variations. For example, a couple of counties south of London had nearly 30 per cent of the crop completely wiped out. She also says while they have a good snapshot of what conditions were like in September, they don’t yet have the full picture.
“Most of the beetles, while they were feeding, were also breeding. So now the larvae will have moved into the crop to feed within the leaf petioles and stem throughout the winter where they will potentially be causing more damage to the crop. We won’t actually get an idea of all the damage caused by the adult and the larvae until next summer,” explains Nicholls.
Gagen says farmers tried other products to protect their OSR crop but they had limited success. Pyrethroid insecticides were the only alternative chemical control option available after the neonicotinoid ban was implemented. However, in August, HGCA confirmed that cabbage stem flea beetle had developed resistance to pyrethroids; and in September, with every sample tested containing resistant beetles, they had enough evidence to confirm that the problem was widespread. Farmers who obtained seed from France treated with a methiocarb product called Mesurol were also disappointed as it proved ineffective in high pest pressure areas.
“This is why over the last year the NFU has taken a more active approach to promoting the benefits of crop protection products,” says Gagen. “We are losing products so quickly it’s becoming quite serious.”
In October, emergency use approval was granted for a neonicotinoid-based foliar spray to be used on fall sown crops. (The formulation of the active ingredient is different from that used in neonicotinoid seed treatments.) However, this approval only lasts for 120 days which still leaves next year in question; and it’s not just the ban on neonicotinoids that UK farmers are worried about. Other important crop protection products could also be prohibited through the EU regulatory system.
The NFU, along with the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) and the Crop Protection Association (CPA), commissioned a report to look at the economic impact of plant protection products on UK agriculture and the wider economy.
The study, authored by farm business consultants Andersons, found that due to the challenging regulatory environment within the EU, 87 of the 250 active substances currently approved in the UK could be threatened by various policies. Specifically, “40 active substances are highly likely to be lost or restricted. This includes 10 insecticides, 12 fungicides, 16 herbicides, and two molluscides.”
The report noted that the loss of these products could lead to higher levels of resistance, yield decreases of between four and 50 per cent (depending on the product), and higher crop production costs.
From a broader economic perspective, the Gross Value Added (GVA) of UK agriculture would fall by £1.6 billion (approx. $2.8 billion) per year, 44,000 jobs would be lost across the agricultural value chain, and the total income from farming would drop by 36 per cent. The conclusion reached is that “the current direction of policy in the area of plant protection products is likely to lead to considerable economic and social losses, with the gains, at best, uncertain or minimal.”
“We have been warning that in the lifetime of the current European Parliament we would face significant threats to plant protection products,” says Guy Smith, NFU vice president, in the group’s official response to the report. “This important and timely report has confirmed and added clarity to the negative impacts that losses and restrictions on products would have on UK food production, on farm, and throughout the supply chain.”
Smith also notes it is absolutely essential that farmers have regulations that are risk-based and follow sound science. “If we continue to lose crop protection products at the rate at which we have lost them over the last 10 years, then the UK will export even more of its agricultural production abroad.”
Gagen says the use of pesticides is something consumers understand when you talk to them about the need for more domestic food production. Reports of the OSR crop loss within mainstream British media has led to an increase in the number of people willing to listen to both sides of the debate.
“The main point we are learning is that we have to be confident about telling our story in public and not shy away from difficult subjects like pesticides or any other issue we have to deal with as a farmers’ organization,” says Gagen. “Because if we don’t tell our story than no one else will be encouraged to.”
Efforts to protect pollinators initiated by Ontario grain farmers and other stakeholders within the grain value-chain appear to be working. The number and severity of incidents reported in association with neonicotinoid pesticide use during the 2014 planting season are 70 per cent lower than last year. The update was provided by Scott Kirby, director of the Environmental Assessment Directorate of Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), to the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry at the beginning of October.
A full assessment of this year’s incidents is still underway, which includes an evaluation of hive health (including bee viruses), pesticide residue analysis, bee yard management, and the impact of weather on the planting timeline. Kirby also noted that incidents relating to unproductive hives and poor performing queens later in the season have no clear link to neonicotinoid exposure and that the science related to sub-lethal exposure to the pesticide is not conclusive.
Grain Farmers of Ontario was particularly pleased to hear Kirby acknowledge the high level of compliance shown by producers during the planting season in regards to following new best management practices implemented to reduce the amount of dust generated and mitigate the risk to pollinators. •