Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 32 - 39)




  32. Good morning to you all. Thank you for agreeing to come together. It certainly does help the progress of the Committee if we can take rather similar points of view, though I am not suggesting they are all the same, but similar points of view at one go. It does help progress. I am very grateful to all of you for agreeing to do that, although I am sure we shall try to let each of you have your own say on each particular question. May I ask whether there is anything any of the three groups today would like to add to what you have already sent in by way of written statements before we begin questioning? Mr Pexton? Dr Breach?

  (Dr Breach) Perhaps briefly to say that the water companies are separate organisations from the agrochemical and farming interests. We have a very strong dependency on a healthy environment and we want to see a reduction in water pollution and pesticides. We have major reservations about the tax, which is why we are on this table.

  Chairman: Dr Buckenham, is there anything you would like to add to your statement? Mr Gerrard.

Mr Gerrard

  33. May I ask your views on the trends in pesticide use? We have seen data which suggest some overall decrease over the last 10 years, some suggestions in changes in the nature of the way pesticides are being used. Would you comment on that to start with?
  (Dr Buckenham) The MAFF usage survey report which was published this year reviewed pesticide usage over the ten years from 1986 to 1996. That did show a 19 per cent reduction in the weight of active ingredient applied once sulphuric acid was taken out of the equation. They concluded that was largely a result of newer products which were applied at lower rates and also greater use of reduced rate applications by farmers. I have to say that I should be surprised if there were this great overuse which is being suggested because of the economic aspects of it for farmers. My farming colleagues may wish to comment on that.
  (Mr Pexton) I was likewise surprised at the comments which were made. May I emphasise that as an industry we are supporting action to reduce the risk and potential environmental impact of the use of agrochemicals, but we do not believe that a tax is the right way to do this. It is a very indirect mechanism, it is taxing use rather than effect and one of your previous witnesses said that what we have to do is monitor effect rather than use. Experience would show that tax really has very little impact on volume used, it is training that is important and R&D getting technology into the marketplace. That is happening and that is why I am surprised to hear the comments of the previous witnesses because there is economic pressure on us, as has already been mentioned this morning, but there is also commercial pressure for us to adopt measures that limit the amount of materials we use. It is accepted that the marketplace wants us to use certain materials to provide what the marketplace wants but there is commercial pressure for us to adopt techniques which make sure we are applying fertilisers according to analysis, that we are applying pesticides according, for example, to assessing the threshold of certain pests and those pests have to reach a level before you start applying a pesticide, assessing disease risk and planting different varieties of wheat which have different disease resistant patterns so that you are minimising the risk of disease attack through your wheat crop. There is a tremendous amount of pressure there through commerce that we adopt practices which minimise the use of these materials and that same pressure is leading us to adopt assurance schemes which make sure that the machinery we use is calibrated, that the operators we use are trained, and these are voluntary assurance schemes where I as a farmer pay in to be independently assessed that I do meet these standards of calibration, training, storage, decision making. I am very surprised that the comments which were made this morning were made in the context of all that is happening out there.

  34. If you are arguing that volume and weight are not an indicator of environmental damage and we ought to be looking at other measures, what measures should we be looking at? You are suggesting that the argument that there has been increased use of pesticides, that increased use of pesticides has caused problems, is a false one. So what measures can you point to which suggest that argument is wrong?
  (Mr Lunniss) We can only agree probably with the comments made by your earlier witnesses that you can only measure that in terms of outputs. One of our concerns about the use of a pesticide tax is that you are actually trying to measure result in terms of the input rather more than measuring what you are trying to achieve in terms of biodiversity or maintenance of plant species.

  35. Would you suggest the output measures have been going in the right direction over the last few years?
  (Mr Pexton) Biodiversity action plans are in place.

  36. That is not quite the question. I am not asking what plans are in place. You suggested that the previous witnesses were wrong and that we should be looking at outputs, so can you point to outputs which have gone in the right direction in the last few years?
  (Dr Breach) May I make a contribution from the water industry? We measure outputs in the sense that we measure the quality of our raw water resources prior to treatment and therefore we have tracked pesticide levels for some time. What we find is that there are still problems to be solved, but where we have seen a reduction is in pesticides which are not actually used in agriculture but used on roads and railways. If you go back to the early 1990s, the biggest problem for the water industry was a substance called atrazine. That has actually decreased significantly as a problem, primarily for two reasons: one is increased stewardship and control of its use and also similar products, and a partial restriction on its use through the regulatory mechanism.


  37. How was that product used?
  (Dr Breach) It was used to control weed growth on roads particularly and also on railways by local authorities. Because it was on hard surfaces it used to run straight off into the drains and therefore into the rivers and so on. That is one substance where we have seen quite a significant reduction over the last ten years in output terms and that was effectively achieved through the existing mechanisms, plus good practice.

Mr Grieve

  38. ECOTEC are very critical of the level of monitoring of pesticides in water before treatment. Do you agree that it is insufficient, or do you disagree with their view on that?
  (Dr Breach) We disagree that not enough monitoring is done. Monitoring is very expensive. It is probably worth pointing out that one analysis would cost perhaps £250 to £300. It is a very expensive analysis, therefore we have to target that analysis. We do monitor our raw water as well as our treated water regularly, which we have to do for statutory purposes and we actually have quite a good record of historic trends in ground water and in the river systems we use for abstraction. I do disagree with that general statement. There is always more you could do, but you do have to look at the cost effectiveness of the sampling programme.

  39. Water quality in terms of what you are having to treat may well be a very important indicator. One of the problems we picked up earlier is that there is a general view that there is a reduction in biodiversity, but it is very difficult to pin down the reduction in a particular species for instance to any single cause. The argument being put forward for the tax is that although cause and effect cannot be shown, there is sufficient disquiet that at all costs pesticide levels should be reduced and that this is an instrument which may deliver. However, in fact things like ground water quality, if a lot of monitoring were to take place—and I appreciate your problems of financial stringency—might start to provide quite important indicators, might it not? Do you think the monitoring of water, ground water and river water, which is being carried out, is in fact sufficient to build up a pattern of what is happening in terms of pesticide contamination?
  (Dr Breach) It is providing us with fairly good indicators. Of course we are not the only ones to monitor; the Environment Agency monitor and you will be speaking to them later. In fact the Environment Agency runs a group, a multi-disciplinary group, on behalf of the Government looking at more effective monitoring of pesticides and a report is being produced early next year. A lot of work is going on to collaborate on monitoring to get the best value from the monitoring programme. My personal view is that water monitoring is one of the more effective measures of pesticide output compared for example to much more complex things like biodiversity.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 9 February 2000