Action needs to be taken now both to secure existing plant-protection products and to develop viable alternatives, the Tomato Growers Association Conference in Warwickshire heard (24 September).
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: "In the last 10 years we have lost three-quarters of actives, and in 10 years' time we will have lost half of those that are left. Our toolbox is getting dangerously low and there are no new ones coming over the hill." Even biopesticides suffer from "stifling over-regulation", he added.
Despite EU withdrawal of some neonicotinoid insecticides already hitting oilseed rape productivity this season, Smith said: "Our Government doesn't want to be seen as anti-environment or anti-bees so won't back our request for a derogation."
With a possible change of Government next May, he warned: "Labour politicians don't necessarily buy the food-security argument."
Tomato Growers Association technical chairman Philip Pearson said: "Plant protection is a constant issue. Our industry is small and UK regulations are so difficult that manufacturers can't be bothered to register (products for tomato use), but the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) and others work hard to put that right."
Warwick Crop Centre entomologist Dr Dave Chandler said the industry has to pursue alternatives in tandem with this. "The number of active ingredients is declining all the time, while pests and diseases are evolving resistance to those that remain," he added.
"The EU Sustainable Use Directive will mean member states must give priority to integrated pest management. But we are some way behind the US, which has 430 approved biopesticides compared with 90 in the EU."
Chandler co-led an HDC-funded project which found fungi that originally develop as insect pathogens are also effective in controlling powdery mildew and Pythium lutarium in tomatoes.
But he insisted that attention should also be paid to improving biopesticides' mode of delivery, such as precision spraying and the "flying doctor" method of using pollinating insects to deliver controls to flowers.
However, Pearson warned: "Natural England will challenge our use of imported bumble bees and by September next year that might no longer be possible. The cost of using natives will be significant."
He also appealed for greater involvement from growers in developing technical solutions to industry challenges. "We sometimes feel that members are grateful for our outputs but don't give us much input."
Water abstraction Major changes ahead
The coming decade will see "the biggest changes in water abstraction in 50 years" with enabling legislation likely in 2016, NFU water specialist Paul Hammett told the conference.
Agriculture currently holds two-thirds of all abstraction licences, he explained. "We only take half of what we are licensed to abstract. Government is concerned about that unused volume being taken off. We need to be at the heart of this debate. We would rather see an evolving system than wholesale change."