As a young man spraying crops, I frequently suffered headaches and nausea, while my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning. My decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated; a total of 147 previously “safe” chemicals. Every time we were told the replacements were safer, but history suggests there is no safe pesticide; as their power comes from disrupting fundamental life processes, there are only degrees of risk.
Organic farming isn’t perfect; a reasonable criticism is that without herbicides to control weeds, we end up overcultivating the soil. 30 years ago, as I planted my first organic crops and struggled to control docks I longed for glyphosate, the systemic herbicide that kills every bit of the plant, including the roots. We were told it had very low mammalian and environmental toxicity but over 40 years, as we have used an estimated ten million tonnes globally, evidence accumulated until it was classed a ‘probable carcinogen’ by the WHO in 2015.
Alongside this and similar U-turns, I have been spurred to write by frustration at the outrageous distortion of evidence put forward by the unholy alliance of the NFU and pesticide manufacturers. Initially it was suggested that restricting the use of bee-threatening neonicotinoids was unnecessary and would lead to major yield declines in wheat and oilseed rape; average yields actually rose in the UK in the years following the 2013 ban. More recently their claims that banning glyphosate will lead to a reduction in lapwing and skylark nests, and that 49% more farm labour would be required per hectare, are just too much to take. I sometimes get frustrated with the organic/environmental lobby selecting evidence to support their beliefs, but the NFU have surpassed all with their ludicrous claims. My blood is up and over the year we will be doing our best to redress the balance (hopefully in a calm and well-referenced way), starting with glyphosate, systemic pesticides and the ‘cocktail effect’. I think it’s long overdue and Big Ag won’t like it, but they’ve been shouting too loud for too long.