Sir David Amess is MP for Southend West
When discussing the arguments for and against banning different types of pesticides, it is vital that debate transcends environmental arguments and focuses on the wider economic benefits.
As an MP that has supported measures to further animal welfare throughout my whole career, I have been extremely pleased by the progress that Michael Gove has made during his first months as Environment Secretary. The ban on ivory sales, extending the blue belt to protect rare seabirds and making a global commitment at the United Nations Assembly to reduce plastic pollution show that good progress is being made.
Supporting restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids due to their effects on bees and other pollinators are no exception. That said, despite being a nation of true animal lovers, I suspect that we do not tend to consider the tremendous economic potential that these policies have.
Admittedly, the process of assigning economic value to the natural world is full of difficulties. The Office for National Statistics is constantly refining their methodology. However, at their first attempt in 2011, they estimated ‘natural capital’ in the UK to be worth £1.5 trillion. To put that into perspective, the total net worth of the UK at the end of 2015 was estimated to be around £8.8 trillion. Whilst these numbers are open to critical review, they certainly favour the argument that there is no need to choose between looking after nature on the one hand and having a thriving economy on the other. The two can go side by side.
The farming statistics covering crop yields and production for the 2017 harvest were released recently. Farmers in the UK and across Europe have continued to produce high yields of oilseed rape since the EU banned the application of these ‘neonic’ pesticides in 2013, with record high UK yields in 2015 and similar levels in 2017. The oilseed rape harvest has shown an increase of 22.1 per cent to 2.2 million tonnes in 2017. There was a fall of 2.9 per cent in the planted area, however the total oilseed rape yield increased by 26 per cent, from 3.1 tonnes per hectare in 2016 to 3.9 tonnes per hectare in 2017. These are impressive figures and we can have every confidence they will continue to rise to the occasion once the ban on these harmful pesticides is extended to other outdoor crops such as wheat.
As MP for Southend West, the figures for the East of England were of particular interest to me. In comparison to 2016, 11 per cent less land was sown, the yield was up 24 per cent and the production of oilseed rape increased 11 per cent. We do not need to farm more land and use more chemicals to produce more food.
Looking at alternative approaches to pest management, such as crop rotation and natural methods, has implications beyond saving dwindling bee numbers. Larger companies such as Ribena and Thatchers have come to appreciate their dependency on insects. They have taken natural steps such as changing field margins to help maximise bumblebee pollination. If this is done on a greater scale, we can protect the rich mix of plants and pollinators that are left in the UK and see benefits to food production at the same time. The Environment Secretary’s speech today addresses this point.
I am proud that the Government is making strong evidence-based decisions about animal welfare. The fact that conventional farmers are already reaping high yields, without these neonicotinoids, proves the transition from these harmful pesticides to lower-impact alternatives can be both successful and cost-effective. What farmers need now is clear advice on how to make that change, for the benefit of their business as well as the environment.
This same logic can be extended to protecting our fisheries, to re-examining our use of fertilisers, to building up natural defences to flooding and to our uptake of renewable energies. Recent outpourings of letters from constituents have once again demonstrated that we are a nation committed to animal welfare. Let us do everything that we can to protect them. Not only because it is our duty but because they are invaluable economically too.