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The Future of Food: Farming without Pesticides?

16 December
12:30 2008

Dominic Dyer from the UK Crop Protection Association and Friedhelm Schmider (pictured) from the European Crop Protection Association consider the implications of a possible EU limit on pesticides, such as higher food prices

Are European policy makers about to inadvertently deal a blow to food production and retail security?

This looks like a highly possible outcome, as European Union (EU) regulators go through the process of formulating new legislation that will limit the availability of pesticides on the European market.

In an effort to purportedly create safer food and a cleaner environment, policy makers in Brussels are in danger of ignoring the importance of pesticides for the sustainability of a continuous, Europe-produced supply of fresh foods.

Alarm bells are ringing

Of course, everybody would agree that the safety of the food supply is of the utmost importance – which is why pesticides are already the most highly-regulated chemicals in Europe.

If the cut-off criteria put forward in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee are adopted into law, up to 25% of the active ingredients used in agriculture today could be banned.

In farms across the UK and Europe, alarm bells are ringing.

If the proposals become law, European crop yields will fall dramatically and retail prices will rise significantly.

A report by ADAS, a British environmental consultancy, states that if the regulations are adopted, the UK could face a 25% reduction of the production of wheat, potatoes and green vegetables.

This is in line with the UK’s Pesticide Safety Directorate assessment that concludes that the legislation could dictate the end of UK’s conventional agriculture.

As a result, the forces of supply and demand will put European farmers in an uncompetitive position against cheaper, imported products. Imagine the irony: the food we sell might come from countries with less rigorous regulations on pesticide use and composition than our own.

We all understand the importance of preserving the environment, especially as we face up to consequences of climate change.

But denying farmers the tools to protect their crops will not help us to achieve our common desire for a healthier environment.

Plants may even become increasingly resistant to the few pesticides left on the market, and as a result, growers may have to increase the doses they administer – somewhat defeating the purpose of the legislation in the first place.

Retail impact

A study recently issued by the Cranfield School of Management and commissioned by the UK Crop Protection Association called “What price protection? An economic assessment of the impact of Proposed Restrictions on Crop Protection Substances” outlines the implications of the proposed reduction in pesticides.

One potential effect on the retail sector is clear: cereal prices would rise. Cereal underpins the bulk of foodstuffs consumed in Europe, and therefore the prices of all grain-based products, from bread to milk products to meat, would rise.

If a 100% increase in the price of cereals was passed onto consumers – without any mark-up along the chain – the price of a standard loaf would rise by around 9p (€0.11), a litre of milk would increase by 3p (€0.04), and a kilogramme of pork would rise by 40p (€0.48).

By approving dramatic reductions of pesticides available, we are in danger of putting an unrealistic and idyllic view of farming before the need to preserve competitive European crop production.

Nobody can deny that European legislators have a difficult decision ahead, as they wrestle with numerous and complex issues that elicit heated comment and polarised opinions.

But only by examining these issues through a realistic lens, and by conducting an accurate, scientific analysis of the consequences, will Brussels reach a balanced agreement that benefits us all.

This agreement should not hinder essential tools that protect the future of our food supply.

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