There's light in sight, says Cathy Knott, but "it will be a long tunnel". She is one of the most respected crop-protection specialists in growing, but like most in the industry, Knott watches and waits. Her focus, the European Parliament, is both standard bearer and lightning rod for the controversial area of crop protection legislation.
It is standard bearer thanks to reams of red tape around areas such as the sustainable use of pesticides and a lightning rod for the anguish this and the EU thematic strategy on pesticides has caused among growers.
In spite of horror stories of up to 85 per cent of chemicals being outlawed, Knott insists a circle of light is visible. "There are new products coming along that may have been available in other member states that we haven't had. But we won't get them for some time because residue data is not there yet and trials may be needed. There are two or three herbicides for major crops going through registration."
Need is great, she says. Some crops, such as lettuce, are struggling. Others, including carrots, are in a "dire situation". Manufacturers and growers, meanwhile, are worried about further losses once new regulations roll into play over the next few years. The biggest concern, she says, is chemical assessment, which will be based on potential hazard rather than risk.
"The only good thing is that the programme has slipped and revocations, if any, will be slower to take effect than we may have thought. Once we get approvals for major crop products, trials can be done to generate residue data to get specific off-label approvals (SOLAs). Until then, there's no point guessing about at-present nameless products in the pipeline that won't be available until 2012, if then."
If all the data hurdles are cleared on residue and risk, new products should be available in two or three years, Knott estimates. These have to be balanced with the losses, or potential losses, such as linuron, a carrot-weed control mainstay. She hopes pendimethalin will survive - it is used for control in many crops, with more than 60 horticulture UK approvals.
"But the big problem is the lack of new herbicides for major crops like wheat," she adds. "Companies certainly won't develop herbicides for minor crops such as vegetables because of the high costs. Total lettuce crop in the UK is only 6,000ha and the crop-protection firms will concentrate on the USA and other bigger markets outside Europe."
Food & Environment Research Agency head of knowledge management Miles Thomas also worries about minor crops in an industry "largely only interested in major crops" such as oilseed rape, cotton and rice. He is concerned about the extent of loss of chemicals in the near future, especially with products containing endocrine disrupters.
Euro chiefs are still weighing up the potential effect, if any, that these substances may have on hormone systems in people and wildlife. But Thomas believes that if the commission or Parliament decides to ban them it will be a "serious loss".
Euro chiefs notwithstanding, new additions are emerging. Two new potato blight fungicides, for example, recently secured approval. Resplend and Decabane are based on a new active ingredient, says BASF potato product manager Robert Storer. It prevents disease by inhibiting the infectious stages to help prevent both foliar and tuber blight.
"Both Resplend and Decabane will be important new tools in the fight against blight as well as in resistance management," he says. "They are recommended at a dose rate of 0.8 litres per hectare and applied at sevento 10-day intervals. Up to four applications per crop can be made of the products, which are rainfast within one hour. They come in five-litre and 10kg packs."
New products aside, growers - especially vegetable growers - face a rough ride, says Storer, looking at recent hardships of brassica businesses in Lincolnshire. "Most of the losses for vegetables are for very efficient products and growers have not had the support that other sectors of agriculture have had in the past. They will survive but face some tough times."
British Leafy Salad Association technical consultant and agronomist David Norman agrees, but while growers will survive, some of their crop choices may not. "We've seen a lot of actives at risk. We don't really know what the criteria are and we don't expect to know for a while. They are only just thinking about how to define endocrine disruptors.
"Meanwhile, the thematic strategy has hardly kicked in yet, so we don't know where the axe will fall. I'm optimistic it won't be as bad as early forecasts, but because of the losses we've had, growers rely on very few numbers of actives. If we lose key ones such as pendimethalin it will no longer be economic to produce vegetables such as onions, celery and leeks."
This legislative stranglehold by Europe is forcing the crop-protection industry to break new scientific ground, says Syngenta field technical manager for specialist crops Jon Ogborn. New pesticides can take up to 10 years from discovery to commercialisation and cost more than £150m for each product. Most of that, he points out, is spent ensuring the product is safe.
Syngenta spends $1bn a year on research and development for new products and extending the use of existing ones. With label extension, the company recently introduced seed treatment thiamethoxam as the Cruiser brand for sugar beet and oilseed rape, and hopes to extend its use into a number of vegetable crops. Syngenta is also developing maize herbicide Dual Gold into vegetable crops.
"Registration of new chemistry is demanding and the outcome uncertain. But in the next few years we hope to obtain approval for a number of active substances for vegetables. These include a broad-spectrum fungicide for control of foliar diseases and a downy mildew fungicide based on mandipropamid for potato blight control," says Ogborn.
Bayer CropScience development manager Dr Richard Meredith is also upbeat. His firm has launched at least one product every year for the past five years. Most recent additions to the growers' armoury are Unicur and Movento, launched last year. Unicur, a co-formulation including the strobilurin fungicide fluoxastrobin, will help onion growers.
The product is billed by the company as "the only one that controls all three diseases - downy mildew, Botrytis leaf spot and Cladosporium". Meredith says Unicur performed brilliantly in development trials. On main crops of 'Red Baron', for example, it achieved 95 per cent control of downy mildew and helped to increase yields.
Movento, which tackles sucking pests on brassicas and lettuces, could make the difference between grade 1 quality and rejection thanks to something Meredith calls "two-way systemicity". Most insecticides move within the leaf but Movento moves up and down the entire plant to protect new growth and target hidden pests in heart leaves and roots.
The product, which is approved on sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and calabrese, controls mealy cabbage aphid, peach potato aphid and one of the worst brassica foes, whitefly. It is based on new chemistry that is safe to bees, Meredith adds. The active ingredient spirotetramat stops pests reproducing effectively to prevent population explosions.
"Movento changes the way you think about protecting your crop. It takes understanding on proper use," he says, adding that manufacturers need to be equally adept and flexible in their thinking under the new "regulatory burdens". They are not only launching new products.
"We are struggling to keep old products alive as well and it's like being a goalkeeper - you need eyes in the back of your head because you don't know who's trying to move the goal posts. For growers, the future is precarious because they need to protect quality.
"With cereals, it's more about yields, but if you grow a field of vegetables with poor quality you will not sell any of them to the retailer. Protecting quality is crucial for vegetables, but the difference between feast and famine is very little. All it will take is a food scare wobble to change the lawmakers' thinking. They talk about sustainable directives, but regular supplies of good food must be sustained to be sustainable."