HC 668 Insects and Insecticides

Written evidence submitted by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany

1. How are agronomists paid for their advice by the UK agricultural industry?

There are two major charging models for agronomy services in the UK. These are Serviced and Non-Serviced with a few using the Hybrid model.

Serviced

This is agronomy carried out with no direct financial payment for advice. Profit or payment for the agronomy is driven by the sale of agro-chemicals, fertiliser and seed. Recommendations in this sector are geared to company policy. Collectively this is the most common sales system for the distribution trade, namely Frontier, Hutchinson’s, Agrii and Agro Vista. This accounts for approximately 50% of the arable area. An agronomist working for a distributor would not recommend a product that their company did not stock, as salary is sales rewarded.

Non-Serviced

This is sometimes described as the Independent sector. Agronomic advice is paid for by the farmer and is most often charged as a Hectare fee. The largest body of independent consultants is collectively known as the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and has approximately 230 members throughout England and Scotland. This association accounts for 40% of the UK arable area and is a mix of Individuals, groups and companies. To be a member of this organisation the bye laws stipulate that there can be no remuneration for the sale of agrochemicals, fertiliser, and seed. This is upheld by a Professional Standards Committee.

The Hybrid Model

A less common but sometimes used version is the Hybrid model. This is made up of a mix of a hectare charge to the farmer, coupled with a link to an agronomist who will get a bonus based on pesticide sales.

2. Is the use of chemical pesticides a significant outgoing for farmers? Is there a significant difference on this point between small, medium and large farms due to economies of scale?

Pesticides are a considerable cost for farmers. Approximately 35% of the variable cost for combinable crops will be pesticides totalling approximately £160/ha. In vegetables the cost will be considerably higher.

Survey work on spend related to farm size is less clear cut as to which small, medium or large unit spends more per hectare. A trend of smaller growers spending more per hectare has been cited by the Farm Business Survey. In terms of purchasing power there is evidence to suggest that large farming companies have greater buying power and as such use economies of scale. This does not mean they will apply less pesticide and there is no clear connection between size and chemical spend.

3. How do agronomists balance the incentive to maximise short-term yield against the promotion of long-term, sustainable agriculture?

Agronomists promote sustainable agriculture by encouraging growers to adopt good rotations and good farm practice. This is most commonly seen using a rotation of alternating crops to control weeds, pests and diseases. High market prices increase grower pressure to change rotations. This has consequences and is ultimately not sustainable by the majority of growers. Agronomists provide the growers with strategies to minimise the impacts of unsustainable rotations, however the choice is ultimately the growers.

4. Is there a financial incentive for agronomists to recommend the prophylactic use of pesticides rather than applying pesticides according to need? Are there compelling agricultural reasons for adopting a prophylactic approach in some cases?

Every decision made by a service sector agronomist ultimately has a financial incentive. This is tempered by the grower’s assessment of risk and likely financial reward. Independent agronomists provide recommendations based on their assessment of the risk and as such the grower has invested in his expertise to make that decision. There are certain sprays which ensure a positive return, for example fungicides in winter wheat. The rate of return is dictated by disease pressure and weather patterns but the return on capital invested is positive.

This leads to regular spray applications which could be deemed prophylactic, although type and frequency will vary with the season, commodity price and disease pressure. Another example would be potato crops of which the majority are grown on contract to processors. Growers have a considerable capital sum invested in the crop and loss of yield due to disease is not accepted. Spraying is regarded as essential and although the intensity of spray programs will be dictated by prevailing weather conditions prophylactic treatments will be applied.

5. How do agronomists measure and apply environmental factors when they advise farmers?

Many agronomists have taken the BASIS Biodiversity and Environmental Training for Advisors. This provides a broad understanding of the environment and the impact pesticides have on eco systems and what can be done to minimise this. The vast majority of all practicing agronomists have passed the BASIS exam and are members of the BASIS professional register. As part of the Continuing Professional Development to maintain these qualification advisors have to undergo ongoing environmental training. All agronomists work in the countryside and the vast majority of them live in the country. Daily monitoring of their surroundings is part of their job. Figures provided by local Biodiversity Action Plans, British Trust for Ornithology are readily available for agronomists to access.

6. The Committee has taken a great deal of evidence on neonicotinoid insecticides in the course of this inquiry. If neonicotinoids were not available to UK farmers, to what extent would (a) oilseed rape, (b) winter wheat, (c) barley and (d) sugar beet be financially and agriculturally viable crops in the UK? Would any other crops become uneconomic or difficult to grow if neonicotinoids were unavailable in the UK?

The loss of neonicotinoids in the combinable crop sector, oil seed rape, winter wheat and barley, would not, at this moment in time threaten crop viability but would make control of pests and the diseases they transmit more difficult. As pesticide resistance to existing chemical groups builds in the aphid population the need to access new chemistry will increase. If the neonicotinoids family is banned the best available alternative chemistry is organo phosphate (Chlorpyrifos). This non selective pesticide will have a large impact on the invertebrate population. Neonicotinoids have a far greater role to play in broad leaf crop production, such as sugar beet. The use of Neonicotinoids in sugar beet production has greatly reduced the reliance on soil applied toxic insecticides/nematicides.

The loss of Neonicotinoids could also affect the viability of the UK seed potato crop and vegetable production.

7. Would the increased use of other chemical pesticides be the inevitable consequence of a ban on neonicotinoids, or might it drive increased take-up of integrated pest management solutions?

The loss of neonicotinoids would lead to the increased use of pesticides. The loss of seed treatments in oil seed rape and cereals would lead to at least one additional insecticide application per crop. Currently no integrated pest management system has been developed for the control of aphids and flea beetles in open field situations and as such is not an option.

8. Do agronomists advise farmers on accessing European agri-environmental schemes, such as the EU entry-level scheme where farmers are rewarded for growing wild flowers in field margins? If the Common Agricultural Policy were reformed to include green incentives, might agronomists have a role in advising farmers on how to access such payments?

A large majority of agronomists both service and non-service have a working understanding of the various European environmental schemes. The majority of the non service agronomists will have advised their growers on what scheme to join and what features to include. A significant minority would have completed the whole application process. The service sector would also have directed growers to suitable agencies or individuals to help them but only a small minority would assist with completing the application.

Agronomists will have a key role in helping growers implement any new green incentives that the CAP reform may bring. This could be in understanding and or implementing new reforms.

6 February 2012

Prepared 18th February 2013