Governments should not ignore scientific evidence

Writers Posted 01/03/18
On the farming front there is little to report.

Cold weather has arrived but alternating with wet and windy weather from a warmer south westerly direction.

Bewl Bridge reservoir is filling up and the ground is wet if not waterlogged depending on soil type. Crops look resilient if not robust and growth is evident in wheat and oilseed rape crops. There is little imperative to apply nitrogen fertiliser until the end of February/beginning of March. With the current ground conditions that is just as well – although on the odd day of northerly winds the ground does dry rapidly so spring and field work is just round the corner.

Back in the January issue of South East Farmer there was a letter regarding organic production as an alternative to standard agricultural practice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with organic production as a sector within the overall agricultural industry. It is not a system of farming that interests me nor do I believe it is more than a niche market. It has a given production and area and that relates to demand and prices which balance the land in organic production. The last thing the organic sector needs is a vast increase in production eroding premiums and margins.

Organic production is an individual’s business choice and if it works for the individual that is great. Consumption of organic produce is a lifestyle choice dictated by cost of the product and disposable income of the consumer. There is no scientific evidence I have seen that indicates it is healthier or tastes better.

But if the consumer is sold on the marketing and can afford to make that choice then good for them and the organic producer. I struggle to feel evangelical about anything these days let alone food production techniques. But what is clear is that for a significant section of society the cost of food is a paramount issue that dictates diet and that diet has health consequences that government struggles to resolve. The ability to reduce the cost of food is often presented by Brexit supporting MPs as a potential gain. I see it as a potential disaster for food security and the long term stability of our industry.

For decades after the second world war production was the imperative to feed a growing population and every scientific advance in plant breeding nutrition and plant health was applied to that end. It was very successful to the point where Europe had such a surplus of riches that it curtailed production by land management policies taking land out of production. Science was evidence based in terms of what it brought to the table, the effects of the products on productivity and on the environment.

Where I have a problem with current practice is where we have clear evidence – such as for the relicensing of glyphosate – but that is almost ignored in favour of politically popular decisions. Or should that be political posturing? We should have relicensed glyphosate in Europe for the full 15 years and not seen the period eroded to five years. That just happens to coincide with French political ambitions to unilaterally ban glyphosate use in five years, irrespective of the evidence.

We then have the German coalition between the CDU and SPD where one of the bargaining chips to secure the deal to get the SPD on side is the phasing out of glyphosate use as soon as possible. What has that to do with evidence? Nothing at all: it is political expediency to keep Angela Merkel in power - seemingly at any cost and certainly to the detriment of German farmers. Similarly with neonicotinoids and Michael Gove’s change of mind on the evidence. If any of you want to look at the UK expert committee on pesticides review of the science you will find it at The final paragraph states: “The lack of direct evidence to substantiate potential impacts for use of these three compounds on non flowering crops is an issue of concern for the committee. Such evidence is needed. Nevertheless, on the basis of the limited numbers of studies to date, the committee considers that extension of the current restrictions could be justified”. On that basis Gove changes the UK positon to support further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid products on non flowering crops. He doesn’t say we will commission work to secure the evidence to make a science based decision. Instead he says we will make a decision now that appears to be a sop to the green lobby but which seriously affects productive agriculture.

When Mr Gove speaks about agricultural productivity he often laments the plateau in yields that has been evident for at least the last decade. Without the application of science that is unlikely to change and why would any company focus its research budget on products for Europe.

The current crop of politicians here and in Europe are a pretty uninspiring bunch. But they need to be consistent and not just chase the next headline. If you are going to look to science for solutions then when the evidence is provided you need to consider it fairly and decide on sound science which if not available is procured. Otherwise research and technological advances will simply pass us and Europe by for more receptive and productive countries.

As the January letter noted: “As one door closes another sometimes opens.” Just as global research does not have to invest in Europe, so we do not have to farm. Land can be used for a multitude of things from food to biomass for anaerobic digesters to solar farms and housing. However the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy to keep us warm and the food we eat are fundamental to our existence. The rest of life is just window dressing which is important when the essentials are secure. I will not comment on government policy for the first three areas as they are far from examples of joined up thinking from successive governments. I begin to fear for food production for a range of reasons - not least the sidelining of scientific evidence in favour of political posturing.

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