Amenity Forum chairman Professor John Moverley chaired two sessions on the subject at the event, held at the Birmingham NEC. In the first he took on the David Dimbleby role for an Amenity Forum Question Time-style debate with panellists Mark De Ath (Headland Amenity Products operations director), Will Kay (Languard managing director) and Stephen Jacob (BASIS chief executive). Their view was that optimism for chemicals post-Brexit will not solve the amenity sector's current woes.
A second session, with Monsanto technical development manager Barrie Hunt and Rigby Taylor chemical manager Peter Corbett, was triggered by the recent withdrawal of carbendazim, used by grounds staff and greenkeepers to avoid worm casts and ensure a flat playing surface.
Kay said "it was almost inevitable" that the weak pound will mean price rises for chemicals. De Ath agreed, adding that the sector is reliant on what happens in agriculture, with the cost of getting formulas approved for use a major issue, no matter who is making the decisions.
"We face a big uphill battle to have products and realistically all our products we sell on the amenity side are extension of use for agriculture. You can spend a lot of money getting them to market. People say to me, will chlorpyripos come back after Brexit? I don't think it will."
He added: "I will say probably the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) seems to be rather more pragmatic and science-based that some in the EU. I'm hoping we'll have a more science-based approach after Brexit. But things are under threat now. We don't know if we will ever leave, it's going to be a while off yet."
De Ath said he could see no way around manufacturers clubbing together to share costs but also share profits, with the same active ingredient marketed through different brands and distribution channels. "It's going to be a challenge to find people willing to stump up the money to develop those products," he said. "We might have one or two selected herbicides, one pesticide and so on."
One delegate suggested manufacturers passing on the cost to customers, pointing out that the annual spend on controlling weeds around UK railways is £7m. The estimated cost of dealing with them without chemicals is more than 10 times as much at some £78m.
Hunt said Brexit could put up costs for manufacturers. "What we don't want to do is to create ourselves an environment where it's another cost to bring a product to the UK. If we're standalone companies, we might say why bother? It's another hurdle, another expense."
In the second session both Hunt and Corbett pointed out that worm casts on greens are simply not a big enough market to justify the high cost for manufacturers. Corbett said carbendazim will not come back because it damages beneficial earthworms and the cost of upgrading the "ancient" toxicology profile runs into the millions.
Meanwhile, current consolidation in the chemicals industry - ChemChina's acquisition of Syngenta, Monsanto's by Bayer, and Dow and Du Pont merging - shows "innovation is being absolutely stamped on".
Kay said part of the problem for amenity is that, unlike in agriculture, use is not policed. "Often clients use a procurement body. They can put ticks in boxes but they don't often know what they're buying. You still get tenders that say you need products that don't exist. But you get unscrupulous contractors and, hey presto, they get the work. It's all extremely disappointing."
Jacob agreed, saying the CRD response to misuse was "reactive rather than proactive." The panel also discussed how easy it is for a non-professional to buy chemicals from the internet, without the necessary certification.
Introducing the second session, Moverley said it is important not to get too pessimistic about the withdrawal of some pesticides, with some products withdrawn for very good reasons. The sector has to work together, he added, with the amenity and home and garden sectors not blaming each other. "We're all in the same boat. I think there is a future provided that we do it properly."
Hunt said he is concerned about an over-reliance on glyphosate, when other non-chemical approaches would help. Using disease-resistant grass seed and the right substrate would to help prevent outbreaks, for example. However: "One of my greatest fears is an over-reliance on glyphosate could result in weed resistance."