Supporting sustainable UK farming.

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Since Brexit on the 31st January 2020, the UK has, to date, entered into trade deals/agreements with 70 countries (including the EU).  The majority are described as ‘rollover’ deals that essentially copy the terms that the UK already had when it was an EU member.  Within every trade deal there are industries that can be considered winners or at times losers; UK agriculture often perceives these deals as lowering standards of food production and disadvantaging UK farmers through cheap imports.

So, will international trade deals put British arable farmers at a disadvantage? Simon Fox, managing director of Emerald Research Limited (ERL) evaluates the opportunities for competitive advantages he feels can be gained through progressive legislation based on 21st century biotechnology.

Legislation

The EU has recently implemented EU Fertiliser Regulation, (EC) 219/1009, which requires suppliers of naturally derived biostimulants to produce safety and toxicity dossiers and generate data from laboratory and field trials over several years to the same levels as required for chemical pesticides.

This completely unnecessary legislation has been greeted with dismay by European farmers as it removes choice and drives them back to the agrochemical manufacturers who can afford such legislative expense, whereas the small-scale manufactures of biostimulants cannot. These new EU regulations are not fit for purpose, they will restrict growers access to useful and inexpensive crop-treatments that will facilitate reduced pesticide use, and safety is not an issue.

The post-Brexit landscape offers UK regulators (DEFRA) the opportunity to impose fewer regulations and less legislation (in the right areas) and it is here the UK would benefit greatly. Along with the adoption of regenerative farming and biotechnology techniques, it is possible for the industry to produce more food, with increased quality using less fertiliser and greatly reduced pesticide inputs.

Biostimulant and biopesticide regulations should be as lightweight and light-touch as possible to enable the uptake and growth of environmentally sustainable, low-impact food production methods. The UK biostimulant industry has already demonstrated that these products, in combination with better crop nutrition and husbandry programmes, have the capability to replace chemical pesticides – potentially in their entirety – and dramatically reduce inputs of major nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

To enable biostimulant and biopesticide regulation to be fit for purpose, and to meet the ever-advancing bioengineering of the 21stCentury, the completely artificial distinction between abiotic and biotic effects – the differentiator between biostimulant and biopesticide – must be eliminated.

Redressing the balance

To appreciate why such an overhaul is needed, it is important to understand the time in which the current regulation was founded. Today’s legislation was created in a much simpler era in the 20th Century, when agriculture had set out to “conquer and dominate” nature; the world of agricultural inputs was simply divided into fertilisers and pesticides. This made legislators very happy, as they could fit products into neat little boxes and the manufacturers complied by producing artificial chemicals that fitted neatly into the categories of fertiliser, insecticide, fungicide, herbicide, soil sterilant etc. Each product category had clearly defined attributes which didn’t cross over between categories.

Nevertheless, the results of this approach, however carefully and completely covered by regulation and legislation (running to many thousands of pages), have been the severe degradation of our soils, decimation of all types of environmental biota (insects, mammals, birds, soil microbiota, flora), crop production ceilings as well as the over-use of fertilisers and the associated pollution.

So, it is clear it’s not regulation that protects, rather it is the adoption of a holistic and environmentally friendly approach that is leading to the restoration of soils, increased biodiversity and improved crop yields, quality with lower inputs.

With an increased understanding of the complex interactions and interdependence of the environment and agriculture, it becomes clear that newly engineered interventions no longer fit into the prescribed boxes that have formed the traditional regulation, which was ‘encouraged’ by the petrochemical pesticide and fertiliser industries for their own reasons.

Biostimulant facts in the 21st Century

There are two fundamental facts about biostimulants that need to be understood and considered in future legislation:

  • Almost all biostimulants have both abiotic and biotic effects (Abiotic stress is environmental, Biotic stress is from pests and disease)
  • Many also have nutritional properties too

Take simple seaweeds as an example; used for centuries by farmers, their benefits to crop growth, quality and stimulation are well-documented. Modern seaweed biostimulants are based on concentrated extracts, produced to high quality standards, and are the foundation of many biostimulant and bionutrient products. When used as instructed, they provide significant benefits for growth and abiotic stress control. They are non-hazardous and many are refined as food ingredients.

However, seaweed extracts also have biofungicidal properties too. Under current and proposed legislation, no claims of biotic control may be made on either labels or in supporting printed materials. This is clearly nonsense, especially as the use of some of these substances could reduce or eliminate the need for chemical pesticides in many cases.

Safety concerns

If any biotic control is claimed from a substance/product already cleared for use as a biostimulant (and proven by trials) then that product will meet the full force of pesticide legislation including Lethal Dose testing on laboratory animals – even though it is already cleared for safe use as a biostimulant. In most cases these products, such as seaweed, humic acid and the like, will have been used for decades or even centuries. There is a strong argument that there is no need to legislate these benign, non-hazardous materials at all.

It is also important to remember, that many of these products can be bought in concentrated form from health food shops for direct human consumption: e.g. seaweed powders, fulvic acid, humic acid, chitin etc. The active ingredient has therefore already been cleared as ‘safe’ for human consumption.

Issues with adopting EU regulation

If this regulation is allowed to come into force as a simple adoption of the E.U. legislation, which has been greeted with dismay by farmers in Europe, it will require manufacturers and suppliers of biostimulants to complete field trials to the same level required for pesticide registration.

However, even then, they still cannot make any claims for plant strengthening or reductions of biotic stress (i.e. no biopesticidal claims will be allowed), something which is one of the major benefits from the use of many biostimulants in the UK and overseas.

The biostimulant/biopesticide industry is made up of many smaller companies who would be at a severe disadvantage compared to the multi-nationals if they have to undertake such costly and time-consuming additional trials.  Basically, the barrier to entry is being raised to such a level that only the multi-national pesticide companies can get these benign, non-hazardous materials through registration if they help reduce biotic stress.

As producers, we are not frightened to demonstrate efficacy, but the EU regulations are onerous in this respect, with none of the advantages of being able to promote all of our findings.

If this legislation, in its current form, is converted to statutory law, it will be an unnecessarily severe blow, not only to the UK independent biostimulant industry, but also to UK farmers. It will remove one of the main tools they have to reduce their use of chemical fertilisers (nitrogen), pesticides and fungicides to meet the environmental demands of ELMS and the goals of both Government, NFU, major supermarkets and – most importantly – the expectations of the British Consumer.

The industry viewpoint

ERL and other members of the British Biostimulant Efficacy and Safety Group (BBESG) believe that reducing the reliance on agrochemicals and increasing the efficiency of crops under a changing climate for a growing population is crucial. This is the position widely adopted outside the EU.

Natural biostimulants play an important role in this regard, increasing sustainable production at a relatively low cost. If regulation is brought in without more serious consideration, subject to the lobbying of the petrochemical pesticide and fertiliser industries, for natural biostimulants and biopesticides it will stifle innovation in this sector and will dramatically increase development costs.

The industry believes that natural products created from renewable or waste materials should be exempt from regulation and placed on an approved inputs list, where data already exists for their safe and efficacious use.

Biostimulants are a case in point. Seaweed, humic acids, amino acids and many other products are potentially some of the great tools in our armoury to improve crop yields, reduce input costs and minimise the use of pesticides. They have been used safely and without incident for years.

A member of the British BBESG recently made a freedom of information request for “..information about incidents involving plant biostimulants requiring the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) reporting or investigating in the last 40 years…”. From the detailed response received on the 27th July 2021, the key sentence is:

“…[we]have been unable to locate any information held by HSE that relates to any incidents involving plant biostimulants, using the various terms that you have suggested in your request….”

This will not come as any surprise to the industry as many of our members, some with more than 40 years’ experience, couldn’t recall any such incidents.

The UK currently has the opportunity to continue with the existing “light touch” regulation – providing us with significant commercial advantage over Europe and competitive advantage within trade deals.

This course of action would also support the drive towards regenerative and sustainable farming, which in turn gives the consumer the choice of fruit and veg grown ‘with or without chemicals’ in the same way as choosing between GM and non-GM, which could also lead to a reduction in imports.

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About Author

Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is an avid follower of Stoke City.