Why we're overusing pesticides in the UK – a farmer's view

High pesticide use in UK farming – a checklist for change. Arable farmer Peter Lundgren canvassed the views of farmers, agronomists and agricultural researchers.
  Published:  17 Dec 2018    |      6 minute read

Greenhouse gases, airborne pollutants, pesticides, fertilisers – the excesses of the past are coming home to haunt us.

True, not all are the fault of farmers like me, but some – especially pesticides – are within our control. It’s inevitable that demands to reduce the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment will only increase.

Something’s wrong in the countryside

Recent years have witnessed a growing number of reports highlighting dramatic declines in our cherished wildlife. 

It seems that bees, butterflies, all manner of flying insects, birds and mammals are in trouble.

The finger is being firmly pointed at intensive farming, and our use of pesticides. So much so that even Defra’s Chief Scientist Ian Boyd has voiced concerns about “industrial-scale” pesticide use and suggested radical change is needed.

Are we using too much pesticide?

I’m a farmer myself.

I recently chaired a workshop of farmers, agronomists and researchers to talk about how we could do things differently: are we really using too much pesticide, and if so why? And most importantly, what are the barriers to pesticide reduction, and what do we need as farmers to overcome them?

There was much agreement. On the first point – too much pesticide? The answer was a resounding yes.

Gut reaction is backed up by the stats. The number of pesticides applied to an average hectare of UK cropland rose by a whopping 24% between 2000 and 2016, according to government figures.

Expensive pesticides are eating into profits

The trouble is, we’ve developed a yield-is-king farming culture.

For years we farmers have been under pressure to maximise yield because high yields are equated with high profits.

But high yields need high inputs: artificial fertilisers and high-yielding seed varieties that need expensive pesticides to keep them healthy.

High inputs mean high costs and increased financial risk. We need to protect those investments. Pesticides are our insurance policy.

But now we’re finding yields have plateaued and the net result is that farmers are investing more and more in protecting their crops while profits decline.

The truth is, we need to re-think the way we’re doing things.

I need my pesticide toolkit as much as the next farmer, but I recognised that widespread overuse must be tackled.

Of course, by farming organically we could remove artificial pesticides altogether. But organic isn’t an option that’s suitable for all.

For the majority of conventional farmers like myself – just from an economic perspective – there are huge potential benefits to cutting our pesticide use.

A recent French mega-study showed that 77% of farms could cut pesticide use by 42% without any loss of productivity or profitability.

Here in the UK some pioneers of the growing Conservation Agriculture movement are showing us how adopting a low-input approach to farming, despite lower yields, can be actually more profitable.

Nature to the rescue

A host of living things make often-unseen contributions to the productivity of our farms.

Earthworms are crucial to healthy soils and good soil structure – their burrows increase water penetration. Soil bacteria and microscopic fungal mycorrhizae help capture nitrogen and enable mineral uptake which boosts crop growth. And there’s growing evidence that beneficial microbes could help in preventing plant disease.

Few of nature’s contributors are given the recognition they deserve, though some make the headlines:

  • Insects contribute £650m per year in pollination services. 
  • The humble dung beetle is worth £365m by returning nutrients to the soil, and reducing water pollution.

By working with nature she’ll often do the job for us. And this applies to pest control too. Natural predators are the obvious example.

We all love ladybirds which arrive in droves to feast on the aphids attacking our crops. And the lowly carabid beetle that will come along and munch our slugs. Encouraging these beasties by creating in-crop habitat is a tried and tested method of harnessing nature to improve productivity.

What we plant and when we plant it is important too.

More diversity in our crop rotations helps prevent pest and disease build-up. Sowing dates are often crucial to reduce weed competition and pest damage.

Companion planting can confuse or deter pests. Growing clover under your wheat crop not only suppresses weeds, but boosts your yield by adding nitrogen to the soil.

There’s a wonderful array of non-chemical options to pest and disease control, some tried and tested, others that deserve more attention.

But evaluating what works and incorporating them into the day-to-day decision making of the average farmer needs time and effort. And that’s where we as farmers need help.

Farmers need more help

The UK government has committed to adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Under IPM, non-chemical alternatives to pest control should be prioritised, and pesticides used as a last resort – only when pests reach threshold levels. 

But having signed up to this commitment, the UK’s done little to implement it. Farmers receive minimal direction from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and there are no targets for pesticide reduction.

In any case, the government measures pesticide use by weight. That’s nonsense. Some pesticides are applied in grams per hectare, others by the tanker load. We need a new metric that recognises the risks to human health, and to non-target plants and animals – and how long a pesticide is active in the wider environment.

But things are about to change.

Let's hold the government to its promise of a greener countryside

As the UK prepares for Brexit, we have an opportunity to change current farming practice.

The Agriculture Bill which is going through Parliament sets out how farmers are going to be paid in future.

The key principle is that farmers will be rewarded for delivering public goods that protect and enhance the environment. Cutting pesticide use will do just that, by delivering cleaner water, healthy soils, thriving nature, and healthier food.

Coming back to the farmer workshop I mentioned earlier – there was a surprising degree of consensus on what needs to change.

First, farmers need independent advice.

The people advising farmers are under pressure to sell pesticides

Farms are getting ever larger and our use of chemical inputs is getting ever more complicated and challenging.

As a consequence, many farmers rely on agronomists to tell them what pesticides to use, and when. Around 50% of agronomist are employed by agrochemical companies, and obviously under pressure to increase sales.

Agronomists themselves tell me that with so much investment in the crop, a culture of risk-aversion prevails, and using pesticides is the norm. No agronomist wants their actions (or inactions) to be the cause of crop failure.

Farmers need advice that’s independent, and not linked to sales. And agronomists need to prioritise non-pesticide options, look at the whole crop cycle and suggest alternative interventions.

Better training in non-chemical farming

Farmers themselves need to be more hands-on, and better-trained in non-chemical techniques.

Perhaps we need a system of continuing professional development for farmers?

It’s also clear that farmers learn better from other farmers, so peer to peer learning should be the name of the game.

Regional and local knowledge is crucial – every farm is different, every field can be different. Guidance needs to be appropriate to soil type, pests, and weather conditions.

There is an over-emphasis on technology

Farming research is abuzz with excited talk of future hi-tech gizmos like robots and drones that can scour a field, identify and eliminate pests and weeds, and spot-apply minute doses of chemicals.

Such technologies offer a great deal of promise. But there’s too much focus on hi-tech innovation and not enough on anticipating risks.

Agricultural research is dominated by simplistic field trials of single crops, in binary studies of treated vs untreated. With a focus on high yield. Disease-resistant varieties which might deliver improved profits in low-input systems tend to be overlooked.

There’s no time, capacity, or financial rewards for long-term studies on low-input, more ecological farming options.

Farming should be about treating the soil as a living system and working with it, not against it. We need to look at the whole farm in an integrated way.

Often it’s individual farmers that are questioning our chemical use, and pioneering low-tech alternatives:

Do I really need slug treatments, or would building-up populations of beneficial insects keep slug populations below threshold levels?

Can we develop landrace crop varieties, specifically adapted to local conditions, with increased tolerance to pest and disease?

Bring back the soil scientists

Sadly, gone are the days when government research stations had experimental farms attached to them. Where whole-farm research could be carried out and monitored over years.

Gone too is much of the expertise that went with it: the soil scientists, entomologists, pathologists.

It’s been replaced by a system where research funding is channelled to universities. They in turn seek publication in high-profile journals – engaging in research where the outputs can deliver economic returns.

We need to revisit research, and create new capacity to look at simple, on-the-ground interventions that deliver for farmers.

We can do this with the right support

Cutting pesticide use in the short term could be difficult for some farming colleagues, as we adapt to new ways of working.

It may take time for beneficial predators to build up, and soils to adjust to new treatment regimes. Risks will be taken, mistakes made, and lessons learnt.

There’ll be a period when farm and crops are in transition. It might also mean significant financial outlay – perhaps for investment in new equipment.

The government needs to ensure farmers get the help they need through this transition, as well as adequate reward for the host of environmental and health benefits pesticide reduction brings.

Save our wildlife

It’s clear from the alarming rates of decline that UK wildlife needs our help – something needs to change, and quickly.

Despite ever-increasing inputs, farming productivity has hit the buffers, costs are spiralling, and farmers too are an endangered species.

Working more closely with nature is the best way to safeguard the long-term future of both our wildlife, and our farming.

The Agriculture Bill will radically transform UK agriculture – never has there been a more important opportunity to address these problems. A fully-researched and supported lower-pesticide approach is an essential element of a sustainable farming future.

Peter Lundgren consulted the farming community extensively to identify how to reduce pesticides and promote Integrated Pest Management. His full report [PDF] documents the results and sets out template of practical, achievable steps.