Industry experts have questioned whether the UK could or should pursue a less restrictive authorisation regime for conventional plant-protection products when outside of the EU. Although there has been a lot of "chatter" about a more liberal regulatory landscape post-Brexit, this is "unfounded", according to specialist consultant to the industry Dr Roma Gwynn.
"Globally registration data requirements are similar and no one ever changes standards downwards," she says. "It is the processes to register that are different. We could have streamlined the existing registration processes already but we haven't, and I don't see that changing."
She explains: "The EU system has always had the capacity to be better. It's been down to member states to harmonise better than they have, to work faster and with other countries. If the UK hasn't done so yet, why would it under Brexit? It could be faster now but won't be unless the Government decides to make it a priority.
"My sense is that we can adapt to best practice for the process of registration. The UK could also give priority to (approval of) biological controls, of lower-risk products, but it hasn't." Post-Brexit, the UK "should retain its seat at the table so we can keep in harmony with the rest of Europe", she adds, pointing to the example of non-EU Norway, which has opted to abide by EU procedures.
Gwynn, who sits on the AHDB Horticulture board, says of the levy body's SCEPTRE and now SCEPTRE+ programmes: "The priority has been for products that are already in the regulatory system. With some projects you can estimate when they will come out of the system, but they can get stuck. It's easy to be critical of the regulators but these can also be the fault of companies."
Meanwhile, the AMBER research programme "is looking at biological products that are already available to UK growers, to get the most out of what they already have". Defending the idea of approvals procedures, she says: "Society requires regulation to assess suppliers' claims," adding that some so-called biostimulants manage to circumvent this. "As a grower, I would want products that are correctly regulated."
University of Warwick visiting professor Wyn Grant, who has jointly carried out a study on biopesticides and their regulation, says: "It's very uncertain. We don't know what Defra has planned. Moving from a precautionary to a risk-based approach would be a big change." But he suggests any weakening would not only affect the exports of UK foods to the EU but would also be seized on by "vigorous lobbyists who would be quick to raise public health concerns".
"The old PSD (Pesticides Safety Directorate) took the initiative to get more biocontrols through, but that faded," he adds. "The Government could revive that but there is the question of resources. Defra has lost a lot of staff. But we need clearer indications of how they mean to proceed."
David Foster, general manager of biocontrols supplier Koppert UK, asks: "What's the vision going to be? I worry that there'll be a dumbing down, allowing more pesticides. But if we want to export food products we'll have to follow EU regulations. We also need to be improving soil health, which would in turn require less fertilisers, rather than turning the clock back.
"The biocontrols industry is tiny compared to agro-chemicals - about $1.7bn versus $58bn - and they are a powerful lobby. But there is a great opportunity for biocontrols if the political will is there."
He points out that last month the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called for stricter international regulation and ultimately the phasing out of pesticides in farming, which it blamed for some 200,000 deaths a year, overwhelmingly in the developing world.
Depicting pesticide use as a human rights issue, the two special rapporteurs to the OHCHR said: "It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production." Foster confirms: "It's a myth that we can't grow the food that we need without chemical pesticides."
See biocontrols Market Report, p35.