For people who care about their food

Save Our Sprays?

At a time when consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of chemicals in food production, and organic produce is becoming more and more popular with shoppers, it’s perhaps no great surprise that there’s a backlash.

Farmers Weekly, which claims to be “the leading voice in the UK agricultural industry”, has launched a Save Our Sprays campaign against EU plans to change the rules by which pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are approved for use.

A biosuit-clad person holds up a tray of growing plantsThe European Commission’s proposing a new Regulation under which any new chemical (and all the existing ones) will be approved on the strength of a “hazard-based” assessment (“Does it contain substances known to have harmful effects on humans?”) instead of a “risk-based” one (“Are these substances being used at levels and in locations where they will be dangerous?”).

The UK Government (in the shape of the Pesticides Safety Directorate) has expressed concerns over some of the proposals. Small wonder: the Commission proposals threaten loss of 20%-30% of wheat yields, and up to 100% of carrot and parsnip yields. With warfarin also banned, efforts to control the number of grey squirrels would also be set back.



However, there’s more to it than that. The European Parliament also has a say in the legislative process, and its proposals are far more swingeing. According to the PSD:

If the full potential impact of the current Parliament proposals were realised, conventional commercial agriculture in the UK (and much of the EU) as it is currently practised would not be achievable, with major impacts on crop yield and food quality.

There are already serious concerns about the world’s ability to feed itself. The shift of much of the developed world’s agricultural production towards biofuels (to supplant the ever dwindling and ever more expensive oil supply) is reducing the amount of land available for food crops. This in turn could mean serious shortages of food worldwide, resulting in higher prices in the developed world and the spread of famine elsewhere.

So it’s understandable that farmers should feel frustrated if, at a time when food prices are shooting upwards, there are proposals from “Brussels” to make it even more difficult for them to produce worthwhile yields from their fields.

All the same, there are still reasons to be a bit uneasy about the Farmers Weekly SOS campaign.

Have a look first of all at the people they’re working with. Among the “key industry bodies” they’re working with, such as the National Farmers’ Union, are such bodies as:

  • the European Crop Protection Association (a Europe-wide trade association for the agrochemical industry, led by companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, BASF and DuPont);
  • the UK-based Crop Protection Association. Its members are “active in crop protection, amenity, home and garden with a strong focus on food production”. You’d never guess that they were chemical manufacturers, would you? But yes, it’s the same crowd again;
  • the British Crop Production Council (formerly the British Crop Protection Council), which has representatives from various agronomist bodies, universities and government departments – but none, apparently, from the organic sector.

Regardless of the ethics of the issue – and there may be an ethical case to be made in favour of pesticides – it doesn’t reassure me when these organisations wrap up what they make in cosy words like “crop protection products” rather than using more straightforward words like “pesticides” or “weedkiller”.

It also sets my alarm bells ringing when people appeal to my emotions rather than my reason. Farmers Weekly‘s perfectly entitled to editorialise if it wants to, and the proposed legislation may well be flawed. (The fact that it’s apparently been put forward without an impact assessment by either the Commission or the Parliament suggests that it may well be.) But I object to reading news reporting which is peppered with words like “crazy” and “nonsense”.

Nor do I think it’s particularly honest to criticise the legislation simply because it’s been put forward by “unelected officials in one directorate of the EU Commission”. Unelected officials draw up legislative proposals in many countries, including the UK; it’s part of what they do. But it’s the elected government of the day that decides whether the proposals are adopted.

What I find most dishonest of all is the invitation to “Sign our petition” that’s liberally peppered over the Farmers Weekly website. The links don’t take you to a page which tells you what the wording of that petition is; it just opens an email form to Farmers Weekly which allows individuals to vent their spleen, as well as apparently passing their signature to a “blank cheque” petition. (As of today, about 150 people had apparently used this form.) I’ve had a good look round the rest of the website, but there’s absolutely nothing to show what the wording of the “petition” is.

It’s understandable that farmers will be concerned about their livelihoods. That’s legitimate. And they may well have a good case. But putting it the Farmers Weekly way isn’t helping it.

3 Responses to “Save Our Sprays?”


    In response to your comments about our SOS Campaign (yes, I am from Farmers Weekly) I wish to make a number of quick points about the pesticide approvals issue.
    First, I am glad to see that you understand the threat posed by the draft legislation in terms of reduced food supply and increased food prices.
    You criticise us for the bodies we are working with on this campaign. In fact, our campaign is an entirely independent effort, though we have had endorsements from these and other groups representing farmers and distributers. The overall industry effort against these proposals involves a stakeholder group which includes the Food Standards Agency and the British Retail Consortium. It’s not just chemical companies that are worried.
    As a minor point, our news reporting is not littered with words like “crazy” and “nonsense”, though I concede these words are used in our blogs and forums – which are areas for opinion. The reference to “unelected officials” comes from one of the many farmer comments we have had attached to the petitions that have been returned.
    Your most valid point is in relation to the e-petition. While the paper coupon in the magazine spells out exactly what the petition demands, I acknowledge that the e-petition does not (though if you’ve visited the website, it must be pretty obvious what it’s all about!) You’ll be glad to hear we have now corrected this “dishonesty”.

  2. Not Delia

    Philip, thanks for commenting – it’s good to have the opportunity to discuss this with you personally.

    You note that it’s not just chemical companies that are worried about the proposed legislation. I’m sure that’s true. But they’re certainly prominent among Farmers Weekly’s list of key industry bodies it’s working with. On the other hand, there’s no mention of any body on the consumer side.

    Given the widespread negative reaction (justified or not) to the presence of artificial chemicals in food, I readily understand it might be naive to expect consumer groups to join efforts to defend their use in agriculture. But if a body set up to protect consumer interests (such as the Food Standards Agency, which you mention) is involved in the overall industry effort against the proposed legislation, then would their presence on the campaign not lend weight to it, and help reassure consumers that this wasn’t just a case of special pleading?

    You mention as a minor point our reference to the words “crazy”, “nonsense” and “unelected officials”, and you distance Farmers Weekly from them. In fact, the words “crazy” and “nonsensical” (rather than “nonsense”) are used on the Farmers Weekly page kicking off the Save Our Sprays campaign. As written, they’re not presented to the reader as quotations of “voice of the people” opinions; they come direct from the author. All perfectly legitimate, in an opinion piece – but it’s in the News section.

    The reference to “unelected officials” is taken from the article in your news section by Dominic Dyer, the CPA’s chief executive (“Forget damage limitation – it’s time for action on proposed pesticide rules”). Given that the CPA is one of the bodies that the Farmers Weekly’s working with in pursuit of its campaign, readers could be forgiven for thinking that the FW does in fact endorse that view. (And if it doesn’t, it should carry a disclaimer.)

    Finally, it’s good to hear that Farmers Weekly has taken action to ensure that visitors to the website are now being made aware of exactly what they’re signing up to with the e-petition. That’s essential if the petition is to have any impact. It’s all very well for a signatory to be aware of the general thrust of a petition; the devil is in the detail. A petition where the signatories haven’t had the opportunity to read precisely what it is they’re signing up to carries no weight at all with lawmakers.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment – much appreciated.

  3. Farmers Weekly SOS « Sheepdrove’s Weblog

    […] AROUND… There was an interesting discussion about this recently on Radio 4. Blog site ‘Not Delia’ discusses the SOS campiagn Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Chance for change in EU pesticide […]

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