Ex-ministers lament stymied agricultural productivity

Three former Defra ministers from each of the main parties expressed broad agreement that agricultural productivity is being stymied by over-cautious regulation, especially at European level, at the Crop Protection Association (CPA) annual convention earlier this month.

Jim Paice, Conservative agriculture minister until 2012, said that on crop protection regulation and new technologies: "NGOs come forward with all sorts of assertions. We must be prepared to challenge these. Groups like Friends of the Earth also have enormous memberships who can flood MPs with emails."

Labour's Huw Irranca-Davies, the current shadow farming minister, said: "The balance has shifted too far to precaution. There are risks to not taking opportunities."

But he cautioned: "Technologies have to have public acceptance. You have to take people with you. Government can help increase productivity by working with industry and NGOs. You can't make the case for productivity without sustainability, or you will lose a large share of the public."

Lib Dem MP David Heath, who succeeded Paice as minister until October last year, commented on the loss of active substances at European level: "Someone sends an unfavourable email to a member of the parliament and it gets added to the list," adding that he had been "shocked at the lack of evidence" behind the EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides.

CPA chief executive Nick von Westenholz said the consensus is "encouraging" but added: "Their European colleagues seem to be unaware of the role their continent must play in optimising agricultural productivity."

But Pesticides Action Network policy officer Nick Mole said afterwards: "They're all wrong on neonics. There was a wealth of good evidence supporting the ban - 33 peer-reviewed papers showed harm to bees."

However, he also criticised the absence of baseline measurements and ongoing monitoring of pollinators in the wake of the ban.

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