Business Green

Published: 20th November 2017

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If Michael Gove is really to be taken seriously as an environmentalist he will need to weed out all toxic substances being used in farming, argues Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato.

Many environmentalists have been astonished by the public posture of Michael Gove since he took over at DEFRA. In the few months he has been environment secretary, he has offered us small but juicy tidbits like a bottle deposit scheme or a public attack on the ivory trade. And last week he pulled out his trump card: a ban on bee-killing neonicotinoid insecticides.

However, while he was doing that, our representatives in Brussels were voting to support the renewal of the licence for toxic glyphosate, Europe’s most used herbicide. Neonicotinoids and glyphosate are two sides of the same coin. Both are controversial, and both have been key ingredients in the UKs chemical farming culture. But it seems unlikely that Gove will support a ban on this herbicide, which is linked to cancers and other health problems and to damaging biodiversity and soil health. Especially so because of his belief in what is falsely called ‘conservation agriculture’, otherwise known as the ‘no till’ or ‘minimum till’ method of preparing fields before a crop is sown.  

Last week I visited a farm in Tewkesbury that practices this ‘conservation’ system. They were committed and innovative farmers who had a genuine interest in reducing the impact of cultivation methods on the soil and hence the climate. They used minimum ploughing, or no ploughing at all, but rely heavily on the application of glyphosate.

The strong support by many farmers for glyphosate and the massive lobbying efforts by the agrichemical industry has created conflict between citizens across the EU who do not want to have glyphosate in their bread and beer, and farmers who have relied on this pesticide for decades. So, while almost one and a half million EU citizens have signed a petition against glyphosate, few farmers understand how to farm without it. The exception of course, are organic farmers, who have demonstrated that we can produce food effectively without resorting to toxic chemicals. Their methods, have demonstrated we can produce food successfully without using glyphosate. Organic farms also have 50 per cent more abundant plant, insect and bird life.

This point of tension between those of us who eat food and those who grow it is going to prove an interesting challenge for Gove and his plans for a ‘Green Brexit’. A ban on glyphosate, or five-year phase out as the European Parliament has voted for, is a good example of applying the precautionary principle. This principle was the subject of an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, but was defeated in the Commons this week. The amendment also called for preventative action to avert environmental damage and the principle of polluter pays. Without the precautionary principle become enshrined in UK law, as it is in EU law, Gove’s Green Brexit will be a sham.

Not that all is a bed of roses in the EU. In an extraordinary outburst during an Agriculture Committee meeting last week, Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, accused Greens of fighting against science. In reality, we are the ones who have been demanding that the science be made public and that only peer-reviewed research be used in decision-making. We are now calling for an inquiry committee into the way decisions about public health use scientific evidence within the EU institutions. We also want to see the Commission fund more detailed research into the impact of chemical pesticides and herbicides on micro-organisms in soil as well as the relative carbon impacts of different kinds of farming.

If Gove is really to be taken seriously as an environmentalist he will need to weed out all toxic substances being used in farming. And both the UK and EU will need to provide sufficient subsidies for farmers to adapt to non-chemical methods and enable them access to viable and affordable alternatives.

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