Chemical imbalance opening door to imports

Pesticide spraying in orchard

Growers could lose some of their key PPPs

Pesticide rulings could see UK buyers forced overseas to look for future fresh produce supplies

There were hundreds of thousands of British-grown carrots snatched off the supermarket shelves by busy shoppers during the busy festive period.

The colourful vegetable is just as much a part of the festive cheer as Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. But Guy Poskitt, whose Yorkshire-based firm MH Poskitt specialises in growing and packing root vegetables, admits that if carrot growers in the UK were to lose some of their key plant protection products (PPPs), then companies such as his could be forced to look outside of Europe for suppliers.

He says: “Potentially, if we lost many more herbicides, then [companies like mine] would have to import because the costs of production would be so high. We would have to look outside the EU. Perhaps countries like Israel, which is a big carrot growing country, or Egypt.”

Dozens of active substances could be removed

British growers like Poskitt are currently facing the very real prospect of losing some of their key PPPs over the next few years.

This is due to the recent introduction by the European Commission (EC) of more stringent pesticide legislation. The legislation includes, for example, a tougher set of requirements for the approval of new, and renewal of existing, active substances – that is, the chemicals that make up the PPPs.

An independent report published last year (2014) by the farm business consultant Andersons warned that as many as 40 active substances available to growers in the UK are highly likely to be lost or restricted over the next few years. Many of these “at risk” substances, including the fungicide chlorothalonil and the herbicides pendimethalin and Linuron, are widely used by the horticulture industry.

The Andersons report also warned that, if these products were removed, many “iconic” British products would be affected. The UK’s carrot yields, for instance, could fall by as much as 25 per cent while vining pea yields could drop by 15 per cent and apple yields could decline by six per cent.

A greater reliance on imported produce

Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, agrees that if the UK fresh produce industry were to lose some of its key active substances, imports would make up any shortfalls in production. He says: “If people haven’t got the [chemical] control that they need to look after these crops, there will be a higher level of rejection; for example, if there are aphids in the produce. And then growers are just going to say: ‘I am just not going to do this any more.’”

He adds: “What we will see is more investment in farms overseas to produce these products – perhaps parts of Africa or Eastern Europe… wherever the conditions are right for producing these crops.” He claims that more fresh produce growers will turn their hand to growing cereal crops, such as maize. “What we would be doing is exporting that diversity [of crops] to another country where they can use these products.”

Stephen Francis, managing director of the Lincolnshire-based grower cooperative Fen Peas, adds that he and his 80 vining pea growers “are on the case” and proactively lobbying against the legislation by writing to their MEPs, MPs and taking part in consultations on the subject. He says: “Not having these actives would severely damper the yields and that would mean more imports. But the UK is the largest processor of peas for freezing in northern Europe. So I think you would struggle to import them.”

English Apples and Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow believes that the UK is under further pressure from its own pesticides approvals process – which can result in products not gaining approval in the UK but gaining approval in other European countries.

He says: “Because of the size of our top-fruit industry in England  – we are producing something in the order of 300,000 tonnes in the UK compared with over 11m tonnes in Europe  – those who are developing chemicals are not going to spend money on trying to get authorities within the UK to approve their products. They will instead go straight to the European market.”

From a risk-based to a hazard-based approvals system

Jack Ward points out that a key change brought about by the introduction of the new pesticide legislation – part of Europe’s Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides – is the move from a risk-based to a hazard-based approvals system. A hazard-based approvals system means that even the slightest presence of a hazardous substance – that is, one that is deemed as posing a risk to human health or the environment – could be enough of a basis for a new piece of legislation.

Ward says: “What we are seeing is a move to this hazard-based process, but instead we should be thinking: ‘What’s the level of risk [of this product]? The risks [of pesticides] can be minimised to virtually nothing, so if we can make that argument successful then hopefully people will see sense.”

The European Commission is still ironing out the details of its new criteria. For example, a consultation has this winter taken place on what exactly the definition should be for endocrine disruptors – which are chemicals that can interfere with the hormone system of mammals.

Poskitt, who is the chairman of the NFU’s board for horticulture and potatoes, says this is why individual growers and organisations such as the NFU are continuing their lobbying efforts. They are arguing that, if PPPs are used sparingly and responsibly, the risks of these products are minimised. Poskitt adds: “It’s really important that we lobby really hard – at least for a level playing field.”

The international impacts of Europe’s pesticide policy

Imports would undoubtedly increase if the UK and Europe were to lose some of their PPPs – but it would be wrong to assume that suppliers from outside of the EU would not encounter their own set of difficulties because of the legislation in Europe.

Mike Jobbins, technical director at Essex-based OrchardWorld, which imports top fruit from around the globe, points out that the recent removal from Europe of DPA   – a post-harvest drench to control scab on apples – has had wide-reaching effects.

“On the one hand we have seen people in Europe cope with the ban – and on the other hand we have seen countries who are using the material (because its still approved in their own market) have their fruit excluded from the European market when it exceeded the maximum residue limits (MRLs).”

He adds that, if retail shelves stop stocking certain varieties of fruit – be they locally grown or imported  – “there’s no guarantee that you will ever get that shelf space back.”

Perhaps, therefore, it is in the interest of everyone in the fresh produce supply chain that the industry’s lobbying efforts are well supported and, ultimately, successful. 

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