Emma Hamer: impacts of pesticides on the environment and health

“Our vision is to develop sustainable plant health solutions that enable UK farmers and growers to produce crops that meet the needs of consumers, the environment and profitable farming businesses.”

The EU is widely recognised as having the most stringent regulatory approval system for crop protection products in the world, and this system is implemented robustly in the UK. Regulation has over the last 25 years reduced the number of pesticide active substances by over 50% to around 400 (in the UK there are even fewer) and around 25% of the current actives are recognised as being low risk. The UK Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food consistently finds fewer residue problems with UK-produced food than it does with imported food.

Despite these achievements, there is some public debate about the impacts of pesticides on the environment and health. UK farming is committed to continue to challenge itself to keep progressing in this area, as well as producing safe, affordable food domestically and not exporting food production to territories with divergent environmental standards. We also want to help meet the challenges set by Government within the 25 year Environment Plan to improve biosecurity and to put IPM at heart of a holistic approach to protecting crops.

The Sustainable Use Directive (SUD) gives a clear definition of IPM:
“Integrated Pest Management means careful consideration of all available plant protection methods and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of populations of harmful organisms and keep the use of plant protection products and other forms of intervention to levels that are economically and ecologically justified and reduce or minimise risks to human health and the environment. Integrated pest management emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms”

The SUD recognises that once measures to prevent, supress and control pests through non-chemical means have been taken, there may be a need to use pesticides. We also need to defend the prophylactic/preventative use of controls particularly for crop diseases and to manage mycotoxin/fungal risks created by the UK’s mild maritime climate, as often pesticides may be the most effective means of disease management within an IPM strategy. However there needs to be recognition that IPM may carry greater risk and consequently some farmers may be reluctant to embrace IPM more fully.

Barriers to uptake:

  • Lack of an effective like for like IPM control solution
  • Poor proof of concept – a solution may exist but growers need to trust that it will work on their farm, in their crops and is replicable year on year
  • May have adverse environmental effects (e.g. soil erosion after intensive cultivations)
  • Risky; control levels more variable and less predictable
  • Lack of knowledge and advice to help growers make better informed decisions
  • More complex and time-consuming to manage; the ‘inconvenience’ factorIncreased costs, especially if no reduction in PPP use is achieved
  • Less effective or little visible evidence of immediate success
  • Higher labour requirement; availability and cost implications
  • Lack of appropriate equipment or trained employees
  • Risky for farm agronomist/consultant, so reluctance to recommend
  • Harder physical effort compared with spraying (e.g. hoe versus knapsack sprayer)
  • Short term priorities; reluctance to commit to long-term strategies
  • More expensive for the level of control achieved

I have recently been visiting NFU members to find out more about the great IPM practice being carried out by NFU members. They are managing pests, weeds and diseases in a holistic manner on their farms. They highlight what problems they have encountered how they are trying to make IPM work and where there are barriers to success.

Brexit offers the chance for innovative thinking on the future support for integrated pest management as part of environmental land management schemes. Future environmental policy should consist of a mix of incentive schemes, including a farmed environment scheme, complemented by new market approaches, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services and industry-led action to improve environmental delivery. In addition, we see that science, research and innovation have an important role to help increase our resource efficiency, deliver net-zero agriculture and reduce our environmental impact. There needs to be targeted funding to achieve these environmental objectives.

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