Agrochemical suppliers insist Voluntary Initiative is working

Representatives of pesticide manufacturers and farmers faced a sceptical committee of MPs in January at the opening of a short inquiry into the effectiveness of their so-called Voluntary Initiative, which is seeking to reduce the impacts of pesticides and thereby resist pressure for a pesticides tax.

The Voluntary Initiative, established in 2001 by the Crop Protection Association and the National Farmers Union, was designed to stave off the Government's threat of a pesticides tax. The Chancellor's pre-Budget Report last December confirmed that the idea of a tax remains under review, and that to be judged a success the voluntary initiative must include "challenging and rigorous" targets and deliver "good environmental outcomes".

Key goals are for farmers to draw up crop protection management plans, take spray operator training and get spray equipment checked and certified. However, less than a quarter of the acreage due to be under crop protection management plans by March had been covered by the end of last year. Only around a quarter of the tests on spraying equipment had been carried out (ENDS Report 359, pp 13-14 ).

In January, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee began an inquiry into progress under the initiative. Giving evidence were representatives of the CPA, the NFU and the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which represents pesticide merchants.

Labour MP Joan Ruddock, chairing the inquiry, set the scene on the harm pesticides cause to the environment. Diffuse pollution from pesticides costs the water industry some £100 million per year. Pesticides have been a "major factor" in the decline of bird species, she continued, and every year negligence with pesticides causes water pollution incidents.

Joachim Schneider, chair of the Voluntary Initiative and managing director of Bayer CropScience UK, told MPs that the "real success" of the initiative had been the establishment of a partnership approach. An "impressive cross-section of people who are very enthusiastic" from Government, industry and environmental groups was bringing both "behaviour change on the farm" and "tangible benefits for the environment."

Dr Schneider noted that there was a 23% reduction in pesticide residues in water in 2003 compared with the average in previous years - although he admitted that dry weather was an important factor. Nevertheless, he insisted: "That is a very important achievement and we will take some of the credit."

Other targets focus on inputs rather than outcomes. The CPA's Patrick Goldsworthy, manager of the voluntary initiative, said that one of the big measures of success had been the delivery of training to sprayer operators. MPs thought it likely the target on training would be missed, but Mr Goldsworthy assured them it would be met.

Peter Sanguinetti, Voluntary Initiative chief executive, responded to criticism that it lacked any objective to reduce the overall level of pesticide use. The initiative was about encouraging best practice: "An inevitable consequence of spraying more efficiently and more carefully is less use."

Mr Sanguinetti said that in one area, the initiative had achieved a 60% reduction in residues in water through best practice such as the proper disposal of pesticide packaging.

However, a recent survey for the Environment Department (DEFRA) found that the amount of pesticides used on arable crops is increasing, despite the area of crops having declined over the past ten years (ENDS Report 350, p 15 ).

Witnesses continued to voice their opposition to a pesticides tax. Hazel Doonan, head of agronomy and crop protection at the Agricultural Industries Confederation, said that to bring in a tax now would undermine the work of the initiative. "Farmers might feel that if they now have paid a tax to pollute, as they see it, 'Why should they bother with all the training that they have done over the past three years? We have paid for our right to pollute so let us jolly well do it.'"

The confederation also opposed giving the Voluntary Initiative statutory force by requiring all pesticide users to join. It suggested that pressure from supermarkets and consumers on farmers to use less pesticides would be enough.

Peter Kendall, deputy president of the NFU, insisted that the initiative was having a "big impact" on farmers' attitudes. However, the NFU says that it is "difficult" to produce evidence linking the initiative with changes in pesticide residues.

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