Farming comment: Buzzwords cloud broader picture

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YOU only had to look at the London Marathon last week to see where bees feature in public perception. With several pseudo bees puffing their way around the 26-mile hike and no pseudo wasps, hornets, horse flies or warthogs, the conclusion has to be the public likes bees.

Farmers will not disagree with that. In my own farming days, we used to pay local beekeepers to bring their hives out to aid pollination whether the crop was clover or beans. The fee used to be £5 per hive, but at the end of the season you would get a comb of honey so it was a good deal.

Right from the earliest days of agriculture, there was and is no argument about the beneficial effects of bees on farming.

However, there is now a storm brewing over a possible link between one of the most common and most effective seed treatments and the demise of entire colonies of bees.

In Scotland, neonicotinoids are mainly used to help protect oilseed rape crops but they are also used in seed potato treatments, as well as some horticultural crops and winter-sown cereals.

Neonicotinoids account for only 1 per cent of the pesticides used in this country. It is the lack of any substitute pesticide if they are removed that is the big concern.

Later today, a vote on a proposal to remove them from the permitted pesticide list is to take place in Brussels and a number of member states are expected to back that move.

France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have banned the use of neonicotinoids and, earlier this month, a powerful House of Commons committee recommended the UK took a similar line.

So far, Defra has held to the line that more research work needs to be done before any such action is taken and, at the weekend, Scottish Government rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead called for a two-year delay before any ban took effect.

He wanted to see conclusive evidence that the pesticides were harmful to bees before any ban was implemented.

Speaking after a visit to an apiary near Elgin, he said that up until now, the science had not been clearcut on the matter and field trials with bumble bees had not been conclusive.

There was, he added, a wide range of factors that could be affecting these valuable pollinators; a view which is shared by many beekeepers in my 
experience.

In taking that line, Lochhead has put himself at odds with his political colleague, Alyn Smith MEP, who has consistently argued that the precautionary principle should be applied and a ban implemented.

Earlier last week, in a thoughtful contribution to the future of food production, David Caffall had expressed his worries over the cumulative effect of legislation from Brussels.

He is the chief executive of the
Agricultural Industries Confederation, which is a bit of a mouthful but basically it represents all the industries allied to farming in the UK.

He contrasted the public political
utterances calling for more food production in the world with the tightening screw of regulations and restrictions emanating from Brussels.

It was not just the possible removal of the neonicotinoids that concerned him, there were another 40 pesticides used by European farmers that were in danger of being taken off the suppliers’ shelves, he warned.

One of the candidates for removal is metaldehyde-based slug pellets, which have played a vital role in the past sodden year in keeping these pests down to manageable levels.

Note the above refers only to European farmers, as these products would still be available to producers in other, non-EU countries who could then
export food to Europe without consumers raising an eyebrow.

This happens already, with many long since banned chemicals being manufactured in China and other countries and then used in food production around the world.

Caffall’s point was that the cumulative and ultimately unfair effect of legislation in Europe could severely hamper the ability of farmers in this country to produce food for an ever hungrier world.

So, I hope the politicians will ca’ canny today and not just go for a knee-jerk ban – even if I admit that I did see one of the marathon bees lying down. It was at the 24-mile mark and, I think, it was just pure exhaustion and not due to any pesticide.