A tractor with spraying arms outstretched, spraying a field of crops

New coalition calls time on crop pesticides

Let’s work together to replace crop pesticides for a healthier future, say campaigners.
04 March 2021 , Katie Coyne

A growing coalition of environmental and health campaigners is encouraging alternative pest control methods for crops, and in parks and public areas.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has just closed a consultation into the draft national action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides, working with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments.

The Pesticides Action Network (PAN) put in a detailed response to the consultation and has pulled together other groups that have also contributed into a collaborative network.

Around 45 groups and individuals are involved including: Friends of the Earth; the Rivers Trust; Nature Friendly Farming Network; Garden Organic; Zoological Society of London; the Alliance for Cancer Prevention; Cure Parkinson’s; Sustain; and CIEH.

Together they are calling on Defra, which is leading on the plan, to implement three key aims in the new national pesticides plan: ambitious targets on reducing pesticide use; strong measures and support for genuine integrated pest management (IPM); and the phasing out of pesticide use in towns and parks and amenities.

The collaboration – as yet unnamed – concerns itself only with crops and weeds and does not cover pest control in commercial or domestic settings for rodents or invertebrates.

Collaboration coordinator Sarah Haynes said PAN has examples of farmers who already use IPM methods that are commercially successful and even save money by not having to buy pesticides. But she advised that support would be needed from governments for more widespread adoption of IPM.

She added: “Instead of just spraying prophylactically as kind of a safeguard before issues come up, integrated pest management focuses more on holistic whole farm systems. So it does require farmers who are interested in doing that to be supported with some training.

“It's not just making one or two tweaks. It is looking at things like crop rotations; how are you building in soil health so that all of your friendly pest eating bugs and insects can come along. It does require a fair amount of thought to transition and that's why we're calling on Defra and others to support farmers with increasing their knowledge.”

Already, Haynes added, around 200,000 members of the public have individually written to Defra urging it to be ambitious about pesticide reduction. Public support for this issue is strong, she said, illustrated in the outcry when the Westminster government temporarily lifted the ban on neonicotinoids – which is particularly dangerous for pollinators including bees – for sugar beet.

Haynes added: “How do we get out of this needing to make emergency derogations for pesticides? There's got to be alternative solutions that are looking to nature and the whole farm system for a solution.”

Haynes added that the collaboration was really keen to work constructively with Defra to help find these solutions but is also aware of the vested interests from industry in pesticide use.

“We're trying to organise ourselves to influence the government,” said Haynes, “to really support farmers to transition off, and to be in harmony and nature-based and also profitable businesses. It can work all round. But we need to have this national action plan to set the direction of travel.”

Much of the focus on pesticide reduction so far has looked at the threat they pose to our environment, but in future campaigners want to also highlight the potential dangers to human health especially to farmers and rural workers, breastfeeding and expectant mothers, and babies.

Haynes said the collaboration wants to support UK governments to implement a “comprehensive, strong, ambitious plan that ultimately has massively reduced pesticide use as its frame”. She added that the ultimate vision is for pesticides to be used as an “absolute last resort”.

Defra was unavailable for comment.

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