Scientists at the James Hutton Institute have cast doubt on the wisdom and the benefit of the European Union’s aim to restrict the use of a range of pesticides. They have voiced this view in response to a report commissioned by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the Crop Protection Association (CPA) and the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) on the impact of the proposed blacklisting of up to 40 chemicals. The report cautions that such a ban will lead to an overall drop in farming income of £1.7 billion, up to 50% yield loss in some crops and serious threats to the viability of crops such as peas, carrots and apples in the UK.
In 2009 the European Parliament voted for stricter controls on pesticide use and to ban numerous chemicals deemed harmful to human health. However, according to Professor Ian Toth, Controlling Weeds, Pests and Diseases research theme leader at the James Hutton Institute, seeking to ban pesticides based on ‘hazard’ rather than ‘risk’ means that a chemical would be banned even if it was deemed to be hazardous only at levels many times higher than would be used in practice. Professor Toth asks: “How many medicines would be lost if the same criteria were applied, and would people accept a similar ban? We all live with risk on a daily basis and we need to keep this in mind when considering the ways we produce our food; food that we have taken for granted for so many years.”
One of the biggest issues arising from moves away from pesticides that are in common use is the impact on agricultural output, and from there to the additional amount of food the UK would need to import to make up for lower yields. “We currently import just under 50% of our food into the UK and crop yield reductions due to reduced use of pesticides will almost certainly increase that reliance in future. Ironically, many of the crops that we import from countries outside the EU will have been produced using the very chemicals the EU has targeted for reduction,” said Professor Toth.
Dr David Cooke, also of the James Hutton Institute, has identified a further downside of the impending changes: “The agricultural industry uses pesticides out of necessity and if some products are banned others will be used in their place. The same amount of a more limited repertoire of products is thus applied. This loss of active ingredients increases the risk of pest resistance towards those remaining.”
Researchers at the James Hutton Institute have been working on ways to tackle crop pests and pathogens that will reduce reliance on pesticides. They now have a number of methods in the pipeline, including better targeting of chemical applications, resistant crops and biocontrol through integrated pest management (IPM). However, according to Professor Toth, “There’s no way we can replace the use of many important pesticides in the short period proposed by the EU. While we all want to protect people, animals and the environment, we also need food and have to be pragmatic about how that food is produced. Looking to reduce pesticide use is an important way forward but we do also need to be careful not to remove the very tools that for decades have been essential for producing our food before viable alternatives become available.”
The James Hutton Institute’s experts believe the way forward should be to keep working to find viable alternatives to the pesticides earmarked for reduction. This would necessarily include the development of new, safer and more environmentally friendly pesticides, continuing efforts to develop new methods. They are asking if time may be ripe for Europe to reconsider the use of biotechnological approaches. Scientific evidence suggests that these have significantly less, if not zero, impact on the environment and human health, and, have already led to a 9% reduction in pesticide usage worldwide. It may be that biotechnological approaches to crop production are the only real alternative to pesticides in the short term if crop yields, food security and the low food prices that we currently enjoy are to be maintained.