New government agricultural policy must be tailored towards better protecting arable productivity, farmers have said, after a wet September delivered a disappointing harvest season for many in Yorkshire.
Although an annual harvest survey carried out by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) indicates a modest rise in overall crop yields to eight tonnes per hectare – above the five-year average of 7.9 tonnes per hectare – this masks decreasing yields for many growers, the NFU said.
Ian Backhouse, who farms near Goole and is Yorkshire’s representative on the NFU’s combinable crops board, said: “It’s been the longest harvest I can remember. The combines were first put to work in July and we have only just finished round here this week.”
Mike Hambly, the board’s chairman, added: “Many farmers are still struggling with unpredictable weather, rising input prices and restricted access to plant protection products. Even now, many farmers have still yet to complete this year’s harvest.”
He said the tough harvest demonstrates why Whitehall must drive both increased productivity and efficiency among growers through a new domestic agricultural policy post-Brexit.
In particular, he said, farmers need access to plant protection products, with the future of chemicals used to fight weeds and pests – glyphosate herbicides and neonicotinoid insecticides – set to be decided by European Union decision-makers.
“It is vital we build on increasing yields and in order to do this farmers’ need to have all the tools available to protect their crops and invest in new technology,” Mr Hambly said.
Environmental groups are lobbying for a European ban on glyphosate over health concerns, despite the European Chemical Agency ruling that glyphosate should not be classified as carcinogenic earlier this year. A vote by EU health experts on whether it should be granted a 10-year licence extension is currently pending.
Concerns over the affects on bees of neonicotinoids, which are sprayed on leaves or coated on seeds to protect crops from pests, have already seen three such insecticides banned for use on mass-flowering crops and a wider ban is being discussed.
Mr Backhouse said he is concerned by the direction of European agricultural policy.
The Crop Protection Association has estimated that a European glyphosate ban would see the UK suffer a £930m GDP reduction.
Sarah Mukherjee, the association’s chief executive, said: “We are calling on decision-makers to back British farming and continue to support an evidence-based approach to policy-making.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “Outside the EU we have a golden opportunity to develop a new approach that works for our farmers, meaning they can supply products of the highest standard to the domestic market and increase exports abroad. We are committed to boosting productivity on farms, ensuring access to the latest crop and soil science whilst ensuring we deliver a Green Brexit, supporting farmers to create and protect habitats.”
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