Guy's newsletter: gagging, bees & bad farming

In 2013, after years of campaigning from both sides of the divide, the EU finally voted to ban neonicotinoid insecticides on crops attractive to bees. Numerous studies suggest it is linked to collapsing bee numbers, and for once it seemed that environmental concerns had been put ahead of commercial interests, albeit reluctantly in the UK, where our government fought the ban to the end.

Last week, caving into pressure from the NFU and pesticide manufacturers, Defra temporarily overturned the ban in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The justification was the NFU’s claim that growing oilseed rape was “becoming impossible” due to attacks by flea beetle. It turns out that related losses amounted to just 3.5% of the crop last year; not quite my definition of “impossible”, but deemed to be more important than bees by our government. It would seem that the decision was not even supported by their own pesticide advisers who have been gagged, with minutes of meetings kept secret.

We have lost crops to flea beetle at Riverford but the severity of attack declines later in the summer, and by the time that oilseed rape is being sown in August and September I am surprised they are deemed such a problem. In our experience, rain falling as seedlings emerge is normally enough to suppress flea beetle activity and get a crop away, and it is soon strong enough to outgrow any damage. In the case of rape, the wide potential sowing window leaves plenty of time to re-sow in September if you are unlucky. Looking at rape crops from train windows I would suggest that waterlogging and poor soil structure (normally the result of bad farming) are much more serious causes of crop loss.

I can’t help noticing that the four counties judged to be worst affected by flea beetle happen to be the ones with the fewest hedges and trees, the largest fields, the least grass and species diversity and the greatest prevalence of combinable annual monocultures. Like all insects, flea beetles have natural predators in a diverse countryside but very few in the ecological desert of most intensive arable farms. Could this be a problem farmers have brought on themselves by their own bad farming? Now bees and the rest of us are paying the price.

Guy Watson