Threat to profitable farming in south Lincolnshire

An angler on the River Welland.
An angler on the River Welland.
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Simon Fisher, NFU’s Holland (Lincolnshire) county adviser writes on another threat to profitable farming.

The European Commission’s EU-wide public consultation on endocrine disruptors has just closed, leaving farmers and growers wondering what the next stage will be in the legislative assault on crop protection products.

To the layman this is all gobbledegook, but the problems that the proposed legislation will cause in the production of safe, high quality food are immense; from yield losses, to job losses to loss of profits across most sectors of farming and horticulture.

And the reason for farming’s increasing concern is the European Commission’s headlong rush to ban pesticides and herbicides because they believe they are hazardous to human and animal health and to the environment.

The EU’s hazard-based approach is just plain wrong – even our daily staple, coffee, should be banned because it contains caffeine, a dangerous stimulant, which if taken in big enough quantities, is hazardous to health.

What we should be looking at is risk. What is the risk of using plant protection products on our crops and what is the likely level of harm to anyone eating food treated according to the law, with these products? In most cases it is negligible: we consume more carcinogens in one cup of coffee than we get from the pesticide residues on all the fruits and vegetables we eat in a year.

So as NFU continues the battle to get the Commission to understand the difference between hazard and risk, we’re now facing a new issue that could affect crop production even further: that of pesticides in drinking water. The UK’s Drinking Water Inspectorate, which protects us all from contaminated water, is implementing European standards for water quality, dictating the levels of plant protection products that are legal in drinking water.

To cite an example, since 2007, water companies have been able to detect Metaldehyde in water abstracted for human consumption. This chemical, a vital tool in farmers’ armoury against slugs, has no effect on human health or on the environment once it is dissolved, even at detectable levels, in water. But the levels currently found in over 80 river catchments country-wide, exceed what the Drinking Water Inspectorate allows. The DWI has given water companies until 2018 to tangibly reduce Metaldehyde levels in drinking water.

The problem for farmers arises because it would cost the water companies billions to install the appropriate cleaning mechanisms in their treatment works to take Metaldehyde out of drinking water. So, should we expect consumers to stump up and pay for these expensive bits of kit or should farmers and growers use less Metaldehyde and prevent it arriving through water abstraction, at water treatment works?

The answer, unfortunately for farmers, is the latter. Some time after the General Election, Defra will issue a consultation on what to do about Metaldehyde (as well as some herbicides used on oilseed rape crops including carbetamide, propyzamide and metazachlor) in drinking water. It will require that farmers substitute Metaldehyde with an alternative, ferric phosphate, in catchments where Metaldehyde levels exceed the DWI’s stated maximum. Ferric phosphate is a more expensive alternative – and is it as effective a treatment?

In addition, where the levels of some oilseed rape herbicides also exceed the maximum amount allowable, farmers will be encouraged to adopt a voluntary approach in high risk catchments and use specific management practices to prevent these products getting into ground and surface waters.

But the issue doesn’t end there. Widely used plant protection products such as glyphosate and grassland herbicides such as MCPA, mecoprop and 2-4 D could face a similar fate with farmers and growers urged to follow voluntary measures to reduce the likelihood of drinking water exceedances, going further than those already in place under the Voluntary Initiative.

We know that plant protection products are not used extravagantly because they’re expensive. But to lose their use altogether would in many cases be disastrous, so if the alternative is better stewardship or finding an alternative product to use in high risk areas, then is it a matter of Hobson’s choice: no choice?