Farmers fear waning crop protection toolkit amid population hike

Farmers' crop protection toolkit is rapidly decreasing as substances are banned
Farmers' crop protection toolkit is rapidly decreasing as substances are banned

British farmers are looking toward a future where the crop protection toolkit is substantially decreased amid a backdrop of the UK's population reaching 73 million people by 2040.

To produce sufficient and safe food for the growing population, chemical usage has become an intrinsic part of farmers’ and growers’ toolkit.

However, that toolkit is rapidly decreasing as substances are banned while public perception that all chemicals are bad for the environment grows.

And, while sustainable farming is increasingly challenging, in theory a future without pesticides could be possible; though this is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Amid these concerns, AHDB has called for the industry to adopt a fully integrated approach to managing pests, weeds and diseases, to support sustainable farming in the long-term.

Head of Crop Protection at the levy board, Jon Knight, said pests are developing resistance to existing crop protection measures amid a general decrease in tools used to combat such threats.

“Our farmers are more than aware that there are hundreds of species of weeds, diseases and plant-eating insects, which severely impact farmers’ ability to produce high quality food.

“An integrated approach to managing pests and diseases will no longer be an option, but a mandate to operate,” he said.

Industry partners and government regulators are trying to find a means for the agricultural industry to gain approval for new, sustainable methods to protect crops and the environment.

There is a long history of crop protection, with sulphur used to control diseases for at least 2,000 years.

And in reality, all farmers, including organic, use some form of crop protection albeit with synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals.

But the AHDB says new food production methods must support the expected population growth as global demand will also increase at the same time.

Mr Knight added: “While government is developing its policy around future crop production and environmental management, we’re continuing to find real means of targeting and tailoring methods to protect crops and improve our land.

“For example, it’s possible to collect disease spores with spore traps then test those samples to understand firstly, whether a disease is present, secondly, what method to choose to rapidly treat it. This then reduces the need to use chemicals.

“To target pests and diseases, farmers and growers are also needing to become technical experts to process information on weather, forecasts, and control choices to deal with our changing conditions,” he said.

According to AHDB, sharing information is vitally important; working with Rothamsted Research, initiatives like Aphid News provides regional data, so farmers and growers can reduce unnecessary or poorly timed sprays.

Mr Knight added: “This integrated approach gives our industry information to make changes, while our knowledge exchange teams can help build confidence in techniques and new technologies.”

While population growth and environmental change continues, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates indicate that up to 40 per cent of global crop yields are lost each year due to pests, weeds and diseases, losses that are neither a profitable or productive way to produce food.