There is a real danger of some very positive agricultural practices being undermined, if key active ingredients, such as glyphosate, continue to be lost due to a hazard based regulatory system responding to political pressure, says Stuart Hill, Hutchinsons Head of Technology and Innovation.
“Available chemistry has fallen by around two thirds since the review of plant protection product regulations began back in 1991, under EC Directive 91/414 (since replaced by Regulation 1107/2009),” he says.
“However, whenever there is a challenge, innovation comes to the fore. Our R & D crop protection partners have responded to the regulatory challenge, although there have been major cost increases.”
There have been two rounds of industry rationalisation since the late 1990s, aimed at gaining market share through mergers and acquisitions. Part of the objective has been to mitigate against the £250 million cost of developing a new active ingredient. More significantly, the manufacturers have diversified, investing significant R & D budget in other critical areas such as genetics, nutritional products, biologicals and more recently precision farming and data.
This has all coincided with the realisation that farm output has been challenged, as yields have plateaued, fixed costs have increased, resistance has developed in all areas of chemistry and our soils have been struggling with a loss of organic matter, associated structure and biology, says Mr Hill.
“At Hutchinsons we are investing more in broad but relevant long term research and development projects such as the Brampton black grass centre of excellence and satellite sites, to actively deliver management of black grass and soils culturally, whilst optimising machinery systems. The development of our precision farming and data management service, Omnia, is enabling more detailed analysis of the benefits of linking different agricultural practices.”
“During this period, it has felt quiet on the new active ingredient front. However, investment in conventional chemistry by many R & Ds has increased and we have been experiencing development time lag. We are now, arguably, about to see the most significant period of active ingredient development in 3 decades.”
Mr Hill poses the question – will new chemistry and technology resolve all our problems? He believes not and that a combination of factors will continue to cause significant challenge.
“With the loss of so much chemistry, then the pressure multiplies exponentially on the narrowing options left. The vegetable, fruit, herb and pulse sectors especially are struggling with very few options and resistance management becomes highly restrictive.”
“The emergence of biological control is proving a success in protected crop situations and to an extent in fruit, but in broad acre cropping significant development is required to prove efficacy.”
“Suppliers are ultimately businesses and have to justify their investment. This is very challenging when an analysis of area and return is calculated in some of these smaller crop sectors and investment is then directed into other cropping, or other parts of the world.”
Threat to soils
Additionally, in some instances the options are down to a single active ingredient. This is the case with glyphosate. It is a key component in the agronomic farming systems described, in practices such as rotation change, reduced tillage and direct drilling that have transformed black grass control and over time will benefit soil health, says Mr Hill.
“Diquat is also under regulatory review pressure. If both of these are lost, then there are no options and the positive path we have started will be lost with a return to a more mechanised approach putting more pressure on our soils and environment.”
“Glyphosate has been classified by the RAC (Risk Assessment Committee) of ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) as ‘non carcinogenic’. This is good news but only the first step. The decision now has to be ratified by the Commission by the end of the year to allow re approval of glyphosate products.”