Independent agricultural consultant Robin Limb looks at the problems with trusting mother nature when it comes to feeding the increasing European population.
Accountants are normally well versed in the financial, fiscal and legal problems which confront their farming clients. However, unless they are involved in agronomy to an unusual depth they may not appreciate some of the practical issues which may arise. One of these, which has arisen in the last few years and is starting to cause real problems, is the move to ban some of the most common and effective agricultural chemicals.
Many people are opposed to the cultivation of genetically modified crops and think they are injurious to human health, despite no proven risks over the past 30 years. An increasing number are opposed to the use of agro-chemicals in food production, and believe there are ‘natural’ alternatives. Both of these beliefs are not just worrying – they are highly risky in terms of our food supply and security.
Europe is currently sleepwalking into a food crisis, and we all seem unable to stop it. Instead of supporting new innovations that could help to feed an expanding populous, politicians are pandering to scientific illiteracy. As the world population is set to grow from 7 billion to 10 billion by 2050, we urgently need to recognise that many of the urban myths about modern agriculture are simply not based on science.
Famine: not a thing of the past
For most of human history, hunger and starvation was a fact of life. Famines caused by crop failures would periodically wipe out hundreds of thousands of people: the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s is just one example. A few years ago, BASF was denied the right to introduce a GM blight-resistant strain of potato that would have obviated the need for up to 14 fungicide sprays. As a result, the company took the decision to submit no further GM applications within the EU. Elsewhere, countries have snapped up the opportunity to benefit from this technology, while we are being forced to bury our heads in the sand and just ‘Trust to Mother Nature’.
In the 1950s Norman Borlaug, the ‘father’ of the Green Revolution, advocated that farming should become more industrialised to increase its productivity. This meant exploiting all the technological tools in the toolbox. Europe now seems intent on turning its back on progress and threatens to return us to the Dark Ages – probably because very few of us alive today have ever experienced food shortages. Food availability is now taken for granted, and it has become fashionable to focus on the negative impacts of modern agriculture, despite the many shining examples of environmental management exhibited by our farmers.
Lack of justifiable evidence
There is now a concerted and increasingly effective lobby by so-called ‘green’ activist groups to systematically ban the use of agro-chemicals. These campaigners have wormed their way into the minds of decision makers, and propagated false and unsubstantiated information to destabilise conventional, mainstream farming. Their tactics are to focus on the most important and essential key active ingredients, such as glyphosate. Glyphosate has at least been granted a stay of execution – for now – but the knives are still out, despite it being the most scientifically monitored herbicide for over 40 years, with not one shred of evidence to prove it is carcinogenic.
Neonicotinoids were banned across the board in 2018, based on the threat these chemicals allegedly posed to our bee populations. The evidence submitted to justify these claims was derived from artificial laboratory trials on bees, subjecting them to far higher levels ever encountered in the natural environment that would probably have killed us all. ‘Neonics’, as they are known, were the mainstay of defence against a range of pests in sugar beet and oilseed rape that helped raise yields significantly over the past 30 years. In 2019 the devastating threat of sugar beet Virus Yellows disease now starts to rear its ugly head once more. There is no proven causal link between the use of neonicotinoids and the decline in bee populations, as has been demonstrated by independent evidence from the UK and around the world.
Only just recently, the fungicide chlorothalonil was also banned by the EU. This product has been a fundamental plank of disease control in cereal crops for over 40 years. This decision will have grave consequences for yields, quality, and consistency of supply. Going back to the 1980s, the seed dressing EMP (Ethyl Mercury Phosphate) was banned, despite there being no recorded impact on human health. This product had successfully controlled Ergot in cereals, which lead to the highly dangerous condition of ‘Ergotism’ in humans that plagued most of Europe in the Middle Ages, and wiped out thousands of people. As a result of this ban, ergot is now slowly creeping back into our food chain, to such an extent that if any trace of ergot is found in a consignment of wheat today, it will be rejected outright by the millers.
Modern technologies protect crops and ensure continuity of supply and quality, guaranteeing the supermarket truck is always on time and fully laden. Scientific innovations produce more resilient crops, meaning farmers are not defenceless against crop infestation. As a result of this, we have become used to a world of plenty. The privilege of living in such an affluent society seems to have made us all complacent about the fragility of our food supply, thinking that hunger and starvation is just someone else’s problem, leading us to cast aside the very technologies that made this abundance possible.
Current agro-chemicals are far more benign and less harmful than the previous generation; they are required to be so before being granted registration for use. Chemicals are used in every form of modern agriculture, in both organic and conventional farming. Without vital crop protection products it will be hugely challenging to control pests, weeds, and diseases. It is only by allowing farmers to gain access to the latest technology that we can generate enough food to support the world’s burgeoning population.
Ignorance is not bliss
The worrying disconnection of the British public from the process of modern farming creates a fear of technology that is not understood. Compounding the issue are politicians who seek to use this lack of understanding for personal gain. Instead of supporting new innovations that can help to feed an exploding world population, they are pandering to scientific illiteracy.
The impact of this is not just economic. In the next few years we will see the need for more applications of new and more expensive chemicals. We will probably also see higher levels of physical controls with correspondingly higher fuel and machinery cost. This is all likely to mean higher input costs for, probably, lower yields.
On a different level, we all need a wake-up call and fast. Most of us have never known what it is like to go hungry. If our leaders do not take action to protect and support the advancement of modern agriculture our children may not be so lucky.
Former Director of British Beet Research Org and an independent agricultural consultant
The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.
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