The EU has thrown a spanner in the works on glyphosates. EU countries have voted to renew the licence of glyphosate; but while farmers were pushing for 15 year renewal, instead it’s gone for five. Farmers have welcomed the extension, but with only five years its future use still remains uncertain.
The commission has dismissed the carcinogenic concerns, citing insufficient scientific evidence. But other scientists disagree, so that doesn’t allay current concerns. Consumers are still going to be worried about contamination of the human foodchain. Its toxicity is reckoned to be low, but the Soil Association has regularly found traces in bread - with the resulting publicity perpetuating consumer concerns.
As a farmer, I want people to believe that food is safe to eat; and I’m also keen to play my part as a custodian of the land. In our hands is the future of the soil, and the future of food.
So although I can see the benefits of glyphosates and neonicotinoids, I still worry about the chemical fall out. Critics argue that widespread use of glyphosate reduces biodiversity, by killing plants that are essential for many insects and other animals. The problem is that its effect on plants is non-selective, killing most of them.
The big problem is blanket application. Unfortunately, if you treat the whole field the same, overuse of chemicals is inevitable.
But do we need to go as far as a ban? While this is a huge concern today, the end is in sight for chemical pollution. Agritech robotics will almost entirely remove the worries around the application of chemicals on our food. The first farmbots are already in trials, and their advent will be transformational. Farms that use robotics will see up to 95% reduction in chemical use.
Spot applications will mean precise application, only to the plants that need it, with no waste. Farmers can have the benefits of neonicotinoids and glyphosates without widespread contamination. We could also see a new generation of crop protection products, designed for specific plants, such as blackgrass.
And with new non-chemical weeding methods, herbicide usage may eventually be entirely unnecessary.
Within 10 years, these concerns - and the disruption this causes - could be over. Robotics is a relatively simple change, but with a radical impact.
Consumers will be free from irrational concerns about our bread. And our insects will be safe.