The UK’s production of oilseed rape has dropped to its lowest level in 15 years after an EU insecticide ban, and is set to fall further, leaving the UK increasingly reliant on imports from countries such as Ukraine where the pesticides are still allowed.
Farmers fear similar discrepancies may occur more often if post-Brexit trade deals allow imports of food into the UK that were produced using chemicals and techniques that are banned domestically.
The EU banned three types of neonicotinoid pesticides in 2018, building on earlier restrictions to help protect honeybees after research indicated the chemicals contributed to declining bee populations. The ban has enabled a resurgence of cabbage stem flea beetle, which devastates oilseed rape, also known as rapeseed.
Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the UK’s position as a net exporter of oilseed rape had been reversed. “This year we will be a very significant importer,” he said. “Ukraine is an example of a country where these pesticides are still used. But why are the bees in the UK more important than in Ukraine?”
Environmentalists and arable farmers are campaigning to influence UK policy on pesticides, genetically modified foods and broader food standards once the country leaves the EU. Trade policy is currently the main battleground, and Mr Bradshaw said the problems with oilseed rape pointed to the issues at stake.
“If you make a decision based on science but don’t compel others to have the same production standards, you undercut our marketplace,” he said.
Bright-yellow fields of oilseed rape, once a familiar sight around the UK, are receding. Government figures issued this month show production last year was 1.75m tonnes, down from 2m tonnes a year earlier and the lowest since 2004. In 2011, the peak year for cultivation, the crop reached 2.8m tonnes.
Angela Bowden, secretary-general of the Seed Crushers and Oil Processors Association, said this year’s crop was on track to be about 1.1m tonnes, about half the amount the UK uses domestically, after winter flooding combined with pest problems to blight yields.
Oilseed rape is used in margarine and mayonnaise and for cooking; overseas it is also used in biodiesel. It can be substituted with other oils, but chefs value it for nutritional properties such as a low level of saturated fats.
For farmers, it provides a “break crop” grown between cereal crops to improve soil and keep weeds in check. Losing this function can affect yields of other crops, said Mr Bradshaw, who sometimes grows spring oats instead, but said they were less effective for weed control.
Neonicotinoids are used as a dressing on oilseed rape seeds, from where they travel throughout the plant. Also used on sugar beet, they work by disrupting the nervous systems of insects.
A growing body of research has linked them with declining bee populations, but the EU banned the pesticides using its precautionary principle, which enables restrictions on chemicals even when there has not been conclusive evidence of harm.
Farmers have long chafed at this approach, which leads to a more risk-averse approach to agricultural chemicals than in the US, for example, where neonicotinoids are still used.
Pharmaceuticals group Bayer, which manufactures two neonicotinoids previously used in the EU, said it would no longer sell these pesticides in the bloc. But it is pursuing a legal challenge to the process that led to the ban because it is concerned it will “stifle innovation and investment in the crop protection sector”, according to the NFU, which has formally intervened in support of Bayer.
Once the UK ends its current trading arrangements with the EU, it could in theory diverge from EU policy in areas like pesticides. But it is likely to maintain regulatory alignment for its own production so it can keep exporting food into the European market, said Nick Mole, policy officer at Pesticide Action Network, a charity that campaigns against pesticides and supports alternative farming methods.
However, the issue of standards in food imported from abroad has become a flashpoint in post-Brexit trade negotiations.
More than 1m people signed a petition urging the government to uphold similar standards on imported food to those imposed in the UK. At the same time, the UK faces intense pressure from the US to open UK food markets to its own products.
Pesticide Action Network and Sustain, a food and farming campaign group, warned in a report last month that “future trade deals with non-EU countries with weaker pesticide protections present a considerable risk to the health of UK citizens and the environment”.
They cited examples such as neonicotinoids and the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is banned in the UK over human health risks but allowed in the US and India.
Mr Mole, of Pesticide Action Network, said the outcome of trade negotiations would depend largely on whether the UK reached a deal first with the EU or US, given the likelihood of any EU deal including requirements for standards similar to European ones. “If that’s built into [a deal], we have a bigger bargaining chip with others,” he said.
He said it was too early to tell whether neonicotinoid restrictions had helped to rebuild populations of bees, whose role in pollination makes them crucial to the broader ecosystem. But farmers accept that neonicotinoids are unlikely to return.
The government has largely carried over European regulations on pesticides into domestic law after leaving the EU, albeit with some alterations that academics have argued may open the door to weaker regulation over time.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it would “maintain these restrictions unless the scientific evidence changes and we continue to work with the sector to provide support in this area”. However, it would not address the issue of allowing imports from countries that do not impose such restrictions.
Tom Allen-Stevens, an arable farmer in Oxfordshire and editor of Crop Production magazine, said: “Arable farmers are working out how to grow this crop without the insecticide. We will get round it but there will be a period of a few years when domestic supply will dip.”