What will Brexit mean for crop protection?

Biog: A senior researcher at Rothamsted Research. Toby joined Rothamsted in 2000 and has a background in Biology and a PhD in Chemical Ecology. He is convenor of the Association of Applied Biologists Biocontrol and IPM group, a Visiting Professor at the University of Greenwich Natural Resources Institute and Visiting Lecturer at Nottingham University. The aim of his research is to improve scientific understanding of how insects interact with plants and to use this knowledge to develop novel approaches to manage pests. He is keen on delivering outcomes from research e.g. management of orange wheat blossom midge has improved as a direct result of earlier collaborative research and development work he was involved with. In collaboration with partners, Rothamsted provided pheromone monitoring traps, resistant varieties and management recommendations.

The current situation – Crop Protection Challenges

Although perhaps not the main reason for voting for Brexit, conversations I have had with farmers indicate that one contributory factor, in the farming community, was a dissatisfaction with EU regulations relating to pesticides. There was a perception that decisions were being made in a way in which political expediency trumped evidence and that there was insufficient awareness of the hardship caused to farmers by pesticides being restricted before alternatives were implemented. There was particular concern about possible restriction of glyphosate which was being considered by EU regulators at the time of the referendum.

Loss of glyphosate would make an already difficult situation with black grass even worse. Currently, the worst affected patches can be sprayed off. Not something farmers like to do, because it sacrifices the crop, but at least it prevents the weed from setting seed. Removing glyphosate would mean even that option was gone. Another bone of contention was the way in which animal feed from GM crops can be imported into the EU but EU farmers are not allowed to grow the same crops that are imported.

Clearly regulation is required to prevent unacceptably high levels of off-target effects. However, if an overly precautionary approach is taken, it can form a barrier to innovation and we are stuck with the status quo of old pesticides whose efficacy is continuously being lost due to the evolution of resistance. This matters because crop losses to pests not only affect farm business performance but also increase the environmental footprint of farming because more land, water, fertiliser and other resources are needed to produce the same amount. If society wants large reductions in pesticide use it is fine if farmers are supported and provided with alternatives but this is currently not happening to a sufficient extent and farmers are being caught in the middle without a means to protect their harvests.

Most farmers are keen to ensure stewardship of pesticides and many have joined schemes such as LEAF and the Voluntary Initiative. In fact, farmers would prefer not to spend money on pesticides but are obliged to use them them to reduce the risk to crop production from pests, weeds and diseases. UK pesticide use has some of the highest standards of regulation in the world. However, pesticides are being lost due to legislative restriction and evolution of resistance at a far faster rate than they are being replaced with greener alternatives. The EU Sustainable Use Directive (2009/128/EC) says (Article 14) that Member States must “take all necessary measures to promote low pesticide-input pest management, giving, wherever possible, priority to non-chemical methods”. However, the regulatory system does not seem to promote the registration of green alternative pesticides such as biologicals.

Insights from the CROPROTECT network

I run an information service called CROPROTECT (www.croprotect.com) which helps to provide guidance on pest weed and disease management. It has approximately 1000 farmer and agronomist users. To keep the information in line with user requirements we ask users to report the pests, weeds and diseases which are of most concern to them. This is a democratic system and the species that get more votes are prioritised for providing information. The most recent user report summary looks like this:

It is very noticeable that the pests, weed and diseases that are of most concern are the ones which have evolved pesticide resistance. We are sharing information about how to select resistant crop varieties, cultural control methods such as altering rotations and conservation biological control but for the targets of most concern there simply are not enough options. Some farms have switched from Winter to Spring wheat to avoid blackgrass and some have stopped growing oilseed rape because it is so hard to establish the crop when the young seedlings come under attack from cabbage stem flea beetle. Farmers need more tools in the toolkit to deal with these troublesome pests.

The possible future situation after Brexit

So, how might crop protection options change with Brexit? Much remains to be seen and the British agricultural policy relating to crop protection has not yet been formulated. However, it is unlikely that our system can be completely different from the European one because the EU is a major export market for UK agricultural produce. Furthermore, companies developing crop protection products, be they conventional toxic pesticides or be they alternative biological products, currently like to register them in the UK and use the UK registration for EU-wide marketing. If the UK had a different system, it might not be recognised in the rest of Europe. The reality is that the UK might be considered too small a country for development of country specific products.

There is a global demand for minimising pesticide use and therefore it would seem sensible for the industry to respond to consumer demand by developing alternative approaches. This could be a major business opportunity and I am keen to discuss potential for collaboration with any organisations and companies interested in developing novel approaches to crop protection. It will be interesting to see what kind of projects might be developed in the new AgriTech centre for Crop Health and Protection which has new facilities such as the Lemnatec Scanalyzer (housed in the Lawes Open Innovation hub at RoCRE) for phenotyping new crops and treatments with respect to pest, weed and disease resistance.

A major opportunity, at least in my opinion, seems to be for harmonisation of crop protection regulations with the United States. If there was mutual recognition of standards this would provide a much bigger market and perhaps allow for a more evidence based approach for the evaluation of risks and benefits of crop protection products. Perhaps Brexit could allow greater innovation in crop protection and commercialisation of more selective pesticides and greener alternatives? Could the UK become an innovation zone for agriculture? We seem well positioned, with a good science base to underpin and support that.

Another consideration is the possibility that the economic situation for UK farms will worsen with less subsidy and less favourable trade arrangements. If this is expected then farmer will not be able to afford crop losses to pests, weeds and diseases. It is important that the British farming sector is supported with appropriate R&D to make it competitive. There is a clear role for the public sector in this because pre-commercial research is needed to solve the challenge of managing pests with fewer pesticides. Farmers need to be supported with research trials to test potential solutions and reduce risk on their fields.(Please note the opinions stated in this blog are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rothamsted Research)