Crop Management Partners 2017 Conference – Farming with reduced pesticides
02/03/2017 by Jane Wall
Farmers from across the south were urged to concentrate on their strengths, identify their weaknesses, investigate opportunities to diversify, and engage more with the publi c at a conference looking at the future of farming in post-Brexit Britain.
Around 60 farmers from Hampshire and Wiltshire were at the meeting near Andover to hear industry experts share their views on what the future holds for UK farmers outside the Common Agricultural Policy.
Organised by independent agronomists Crop Management Partners LLP, the spring conference heard from Dr Julian Little, head of communications and Government affairs at Bayer Crop Science, Will Baillie, from Savills, Dr Matthew Shepherd, a soil biodiversity specialist at Natural England, and Rhys Evans, a Crop Management Partners agronomist and organic farming expert.
And Dr Julian Little, from Bayer Crop Science, said there was no doubt that fewer pesticides coming onto the market would also leave farmers in a m
ore difficult place. He said that, as the new British Agricultural Policy is formed, it is essential for farmers to interact with their MPs and make sure the government understands what farmers need.
“Since 2009, 450 products have been lost in Europe, with only four new active ingredients coming to the market in that time,” he said.
“But it is certain that although pesticides will be used less by farmers in the future, they will remain an integral part of UK agriculture.
“The reality of producing the food we need with the premise of not using any pesticide is untenable. The government does understand that; it is listening, but you must continue to speak to your MPs and remind them why these things are used – sprays are used for a reason.”
The loss of neonicotinoids because of their alleged impact on bees has already adversely affected the production of oilseed rape in the UK, said Dr Little.
“It is claimed that since neonicotinoids were brought in there has been a decline in the number of bees. But in a 2016 European Commission report looking at bee numbers in Europe, we can see that in 2004-2006 there were 11.5 million hives, and in 2016 there were 15.5 million hives. Every year, they have been increasing. This is not quite what we have heard, so why are you now in the situation where you don’t have access to these products?
“We do know what the impact has been on you, the farmers. Resistance is rife to our remaining pesticides leading to a decrease in yield, and farmers are growing less oilseed rape. The real irony is that this is the main pollen and nectar source for bees and butterflies at that time of year, so banning neonics because they harm bees has meant there is now less food for pollinating insects.”
Dr Little said post-Brexit UK agriculture would either have to become more dependent on imported food, or balance green issues with productive agriculture – and in order to do that, it would have to be given the tools to become more competitive.
“The UK voted for Brexit and we have to look at the opportunities that affords us,” he said.
“There are many options to consider, including conventional chemistry, digital farming, GM crops, new breeding, and organic farming.
“The EU situation is highly problematic for farmers, but UK agriculture can survive. Britain has the most innovative farmers in the world. Give them the tools to do their job and they always do it in a way that will surprise you.”
Will Baillie, from Savills, agreed that UK farmers should seize the opportunity for growth, and pointed out that the productivity of non-EU countries over the last 20 years had accelerated a lot faster than that of their European counterparts.
“For the last 20 years, the UK farming industry has shown no noticeable increase in its production of wheat and barley. We need to be increasing those yields to combat the loss of subsidies and break even.”
Mr Baillie said GM crops could offer some of that solution, with trials showing a potential increase in yields of 20 per cent, and reduced need for pesticides.
He also advised farmers to look at growing alternative crops like soya, borage and quinoa, and make the best use of their land.
“Look at your land, look at your finances – get your house in order. The government has promised to match subsides up to 2020 but beyond that is uncertain. If you can’t survive without EU money, find a way to restructure and act now while you still have the subsidies.”
Dr Matthew Shepherd, from Natural England, said plant diversity and good soil maintenance were essential to combat crop pests and diseases.
“Our plant diversity has shrunk 75 per cent since the 1900s. Seventy five per cent of the world’s food is generated by 12 plants and five animal species; we are literally putting all our eggs in one basket.
“We need a wide variety of plants with good disease resistance planted in unpredictable patterns with highly-targeted pesticide use.
“There are differing opinions on neonicotinoids, but I am a fan of glyphosate. The reason I like glyphosate is that the alternative is tillage, and that is very disruptive to soil biology. Glyphosate kills plants, helping the soil organisms, which feed on the decaying plant matter.
“Your soil is your greatest asset, and we need to wake up to the fact that soil organisms are what helps keep plants healthy. Better soil structure will encourage soil life, which will fight diseases and pests; soil organisms are the biological engine of the earth and engines need fuel to function. Deep cultivation doesn’t help soil biology but if you must plough, add back plenty of organic matter so your soil can keep performing for you.”
Organic farming techniques can also give UK farmers ideas on how to cope with the drive to farm with reduced pesticide input, and Crop Management Partners agronomist Rhys Evans, who advises on a 370-acre organic farm in Wiltshire, says it’s essential to get the basics right.
“For various reasons, farming with fewer pesticides is a reality of the future. Make sure you are getting the basics right: well-sown is half-grown. Maintain your soil pH, don’t import problems, look at your drainage and monitor weeds.
“Farming with no pesticides means you must know your enemies and how to tackle them. Crop variety and rotation is key, and you must prevent seed return of major weeds.
“It’s possible to have respectable yields using organic methods, but consistency is always a challenge.”
Closing the conference, Crop Management partner Nick Wall said British farmers were facing more uncertainty than ever before, but should not lose sight of the fact that there may also be exciting new opportunities on the horizon.
“We need to engage with our MPs and be more open. We must not be afraid to talk about the good things that we do – farmers are not very good at banging their own drums! Diversifying is key; we mustn’t shy away from our weaknesses, and we need to concentrate on our strengths.
“Don’t be afraid to go back to basics to look after our soil structure, which is our greatest asset.
“UK farmers are a pragmatic, innovative, enthusiastic, resilient group. We need to pick our battles and use our resilience to move forward in what could be a very exciting time.”
Bayer CropScience view of EU regulations – Dr Julian Little, Bayer
Outlook for the years ahead – Will Baillie, Savills
Taking care of your soils to maintain output whilst reducing input – Matthew Shepherd, Natural England
Farming without pesticides – Rhys Evans, Crop Management Partners