photo of bee on flower with farmed field in background

Agriculture Bill must make countryside safe for wildlife

The government is writing a new policy for agriculture after Brexit. This is our opportunity to make sure pesticide reduction is at the heart of UK farming.
portrait of Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth
By Sandra Bell    |      Published:  21 May 2018    |      8 minute read

The natural world is in serious trouble. Bees, birds, butterflies and other wildlife are in devastating decline. One of the main reasons? Pesticides. Too much of our countryside is routinely doused with a cocktail of chemicals. This needs to change – and farmers need help to get off the chemical treadmill.

The government promised that the new farming policy will do more to protect the environment. 

So, right now, we have an extraordinary opportunity to influence the future of farming and ensure that wildlife can thrive again in our countryside.

Agriculture Bill must help wildlife

The UK will need a new farming policy for when we leave the EU. The government is setting out what this might look like.

Farming policy since the Second World War has put too much emphasis on simply producing more food. It’s out of date and needs to change. 

We think the new farming rules must ensure the countryside is safer for bees and other wildlife. This means having an ambitious target to reduce pesticide use. If the government gets this right it can help farmers and nature at the same time.

If the government gets this right it can help farmers and nature at the same time.

Innovative farmers are already cutting their use of chemicals. They're finding they can cut costs and produce healthy crops by working with nature. I'll look at some of their work below. 

But first let's recap on what we know about the impact of pesticides on bees and other wildlife.

Birds and bees need an Agriculture Bill that cuts pesticides

The great news is that the EU recently voted to ban 3 bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides on all outdoor crops. The UK is committed to keeping the ban post Brexit.

These are big steps in the right direction. Incidentally, these steps are thanks in part to the pressure thousands of Friends of the Earth supporters put on policy makers to step in to help bees.

So we can make a difference – and we should take this opportunity to press on: please sign the petition below.

Because the sobering news is that neonics are not the only pesticides affecting pollinators. The reality on our farmland is that wildlife is routinely exposed to a whole cocktail of chemicals. 

Evidence shows that fungicides (used to control disease rather than pests) could increase the toxicity of neonics to bees. But most combinations of pesticides are not even tested – so the combined impact is unknown. 

Broad-spectrum herbicides like glyphosate are not selective about which weeds they kill – so they reduce the availability of pollen and nectar from wild plants.

There is already international agreement on the need to cut pesticide use to help pollinators . 

Crop spraying on field of yellow plants.
Credit: iStock/davidmartyn

Pesticides harm more than bees

It’s not just bees that are at risk from intensive farming. All insecticides are designed to kill insects and it’s not just the pests that get a dose. 

When the massive decline in flying insects in Germany hit the headlines in 2017 researchers pointed to pesticide use as a potential reason. 

"As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect eating birds and mammals in a new context," said lead researcher Hans de Kroon. "We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides."

Swifts flying over fields
Credit: iStock/Leopardinatree

Pesticides were in the news again in March 2018 as a new study revealed bird numbers across France have declined by a third in the past 15 years. It linked the figures to changes in agricultural practices including pesticide use. 

Martin Harper, director of conservation at the RSPB, says the issue is not unique to France: “In the UK the situation is just as concerning. Our beleaguered farmland birds have declined by 56 per cent between 1970 and 2015 along with declines in other wildlife linked to changes in agricultural practices, including the use of pesticides.”

So we know that pesticides are harming our birds and bees. Yet a new report by Pesticides Action Network has revealed that UK farmers are using more toxic pesticides and on more land – grim news for our struggling wildlife.

Aren't pesticides needed to grow our food? 

Farmers must protect their crops from pests and diseases. But current levels of pesticide use are unnecessary as well as damaging.

A study in France found that the vast majority (94%) of farms would not produce less crops if they cut pesticides. It found that and some of these (two-fifths) would actually produce more. The results were most startling for insecticides: lower levels of pesticide use would result in more production on 86% of farms. No farms would produce less.

Even Defra’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Boyd now says that we are using too many pesticides on our farms to be safe for the environment: “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems. [...]This can and should be changed.” 

With co-author Alice Milner, Professor Boyd compared the overuse of pesticides to the use of antibiotics where “sparing use would be more appropriate”.

Alternative crop protection: better for farmers and wildlife

Some farmers are leading the way in cutting pesticide use. 

Hertfordshire farmer John Cherry hasn’t used any insecticides on his farm for 3 years. He says he has no regrets, and is saving money that he would have spent on pesticides: “The crops look better than ever and the key is having enough natural predators, as we are trying to work with nature rather than against it.”

John attributes his success to his no-till approach – which leaves the soil undisturbed so helps natural predators build up – and to growing a greater diversity of crops in his rotation. 

As well as buying less chemicals he is being rewarded with more worms in the soil and more birds around the farm.

Farmers John & Paul Cherry at gate into field
Farmers John & Paul Cherry
Credit: Laura Valentine


Habitats for natural predators

Natural predators can be helped by having a diversity of habitat on the farm. Bringing back more hedges, trees and wildflowers will also make for an attractive countryside with more bees, butterflies and birds.

Stephen Briggs, an organic farmer in the fens in the East of England, is convinced that a variety of habitat and crops is key. He's a passionate advocate of agro-forestry. On his farm apple trees are combined with arable crops like wheat, oats and barley. Stephen has seen an increase in birds on his farm, including yellow wagtails and tawny owls.

“Nature doesn’t do monoculture," he says. "A farming system where the vegetation cover is varied has more natural checks and balances built in, and is more resilient than the simplified systems that dominate much of the farmed landscape.”

Embrace complexity

The need to respect nature as a complex system applies whether the farm is organic or not. Kent farmer Andy Barr has cut out all insecticides on his oilseed rape. He says there isn’t a silver bullet for cutting pesticide use. 

He has had some great results with companion cropping – which draw pests away from the main crop. But, he says, “You have to embrace the complexity.”

Andy grows a diversity of crops, chooses varieties that are more resistant to disease and provides habitat for natural predators. 

Cutting pesticide use can be a win-win for farmers and wildlife. Insecticides are meant to kill insects – so it’s not surprising that they are harming the bugs that pollinate our food and eat pests.  

Lincolnshire farmer Peter Lundgren says: “There’s a payoff for ensuring healthy and increasing populations of bees and beneficial insects. They can do our work for us – and they don’t charge for providing the service.”

Helping farmers to help nature

We all want to see more bees birds and butterflies in the countryside, and enjoy more wildflowers and trees and hedges in the landscape. The government is promising it's exactly these kind of public goods that its new farming policy will support. We need to make sure it does.

Farmers point out that getting off the chemical treadmill is rewarding but not always simple. Farmers will need tools and knowledge to cut their reliance on chemicals but still be able to protect their crops. This is a key area where the government should help. 

And it's possible – the knowledge is out there. Peter Lundgren says: “I haven’t used neonicotinoids for years – and I haven’t seen a reduction in my crop yields due to pest damage. I would urge Michael Gove to increase investment in economically viable and safer alternative pest-control methods.”

There are some exciting new developments in robotics that could lead to precision pest and weed control. The government is already investing in a budget to take such ideas forward.

But the future is not all about high tech solutions – we need more research into the non-chemical methods being trialled by farmers and better dissemination of the results.

An independent advisory service is likely to be vital. Too many agronomists are linked to pesticide companies – so their advice is linked to selling pesticide products. This must change.

Rewards for cutting pesticides

The new farming policy will include a budget to reward farmers. We think it should reward farmers who can show they’ve cut pesticides or boosted wildlife. This could include organic farming, agro-forestry or integrated pest management, where chemicals are available but only used as a last resort.

Farmland fields near Lesbury, Northumberland
Credit: iStock/daverhead

Farming fit for the future

The new farming policy is an opportunity for all of us to have a say in how our money is spent. Some £3 billion of taxpayers' money is spent on farming each year. This must be used to restore our countryside. Too much of it is a pretty barren place, when is should be alive with birdsong and the buzz of bees.

Helping nature will help ensure UK farmers can produce good quality food. Our future food production needs healthy soils. It's dependent on the services that nature provides – such as pollination and natural pest control. 

This relationship between food production and a healthy environment has been recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO): “while the last half-century has witnessed striking increases in global food production through intensive use of inputs, such practices may deplete natural resources and impair the ability of agro-ecosystems to sustain production into the future.”

Of course bees also need places to feed, nest and shelter. And because we’ve lost most of our wildflower meadows and many of our hedges and other natural places, bees now need extensive new habitat to be created across our farmland.

Bumblebee on clover
Bumblebee on clover
Credit: Alan Palmer


How will the new farming policy be created?

In early 2018 the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a consultation on the future of farming policy in England. Friends of the Earth co-hosted a consultation event in Manchester with farmers, food groups and others. And we submitted a detailed response to the consultation.

A similar consultation process was expected to take place in Wales. England, Wales and Northern Ireland will each develop farming policies but with some common framing and regulation.

The government will use the responses to the consultation to draft its new policy. An Agriculture Bill will be introduced later in 2018 which will provide the legal basis to break from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and allow the UK to set out a domestic policy. 

The government has committed to giving parliament scrutiny of the agriculture legislative programme and to working with the devolved nations.

This gives us more opportunities over coming months to shape the future of farming in the UK.

What is Friends of the Earth doing about the Agriculture Bill?

Pesticides are a huge threat to pollinators. So it's a logical next step for Friends of the Earth's bees campaign to focus on reducing pesticides.

We're working with farmers to identify the best way to help them reduce pesticide use and we’ll be taking those ideas to Westminster and the devolved nation governments.

We’ve also joined forces with conservation groups calling for a range of changes to farming policy to help our struggling wildlife.

 If adopted, the changes we're calling for will

  • restore and create wildlife habitat in our countryside
  • protect our soil and water
  • ensure high animal welfare standards
  • support a diverse and profitable farming sector.