The Bee, the CAP and the Yellow Yellow Rape

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I was talking to a farmer recently who doesn’t do much crop rotation (I think he meant but didn’t like to say, any, and incidentally doesn’t put his cattle to grass either because of potential loss of weight when they move out to pasture. )

Crop rotation was one of the means by which agriculture became so successful in this country. But that was before everything was sprayed with pesticides. Sprayed and sprayed and sprayed.

The amount of rapeseed being grown also appears to have multiplied hugely over recent years.  But with the forthcoming partial ban on the most commonly used pesticide on this crop it is likely that some European farmers are going to be fairly disgruntled or perhaps only some of them.

And our bee populations however are likely to benefit. What’s left of them. How many honey bees have you spotted this year? I’ve not seen a single one. Lots of other kinds but no honey bees and they used to be common around here.

There are some 250 varieties of bees in this country and their decline is significantly speeding up.

There are fears that there is a correlation between the increase in acreage of cultivated rapeseed, intensive farming with its removal of natural habitats  and the decline of our bee populations.    Nearly 70 million tonnes of rapeseed were grown last year, 19.3 million tonnes coming from land across Europe.

Rapeseed is used for oil and animal feed – oh and biodiesel.

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Varieties of beetle also love the stuff and they move across it laying their eggs and are especially active in warm weather. You might think that wouldn’t be so much of a problem in this country as it should be in France where yield per acre is double that of the UK but it appears French farmers are less dependent on the application of pesticides.

Here dressing seed has been the most successful way of dealing with the flea beetles as spraying which is the alternative is less effective in wet or windy weather. The peach potato aphid has also caused headaches for rapeseed growers and it has become resistant to most of the available insecticides. That’s what happens with heavy levels of pesticides being added to food crops.  That may be good news for insects but not so for us humans who ingest residue pesticides from the skin of fruit and vegetables and there are good reasons why pesticides are not available for human consumption on shop shelves.

Rapeseed crop off A96

Neonicotinoids, the pesticide of choice for farmers of rapeseed, protects plants by moving up from the dressed seed as the plant grows  – the toxin remains active for a period of weeks after sowing when bees (and other insects) may be exposed to it.

Rapeseed is a crop which requires insect pollination and while the level of toxins from neonicotinoids is low constant foraging by pollinating insects continuously exposes them to harmful toxins so the impact is cumulative.

It has been shown that neonicotinoids do have devastating effects on bees. All foraging bees will pick up and transfer the pesticide toxins back to the hive where the rest of the colony will be affected. It should be remembered that it will not only be neonicotinoids which they will encounter but a cocktail of pesticides from other crops and plants (including garden) they visit.

So back to the French with their higher yields of rapeseed. Do they use more chemicals than in the UK to achieve this? Well no. Neonicotinoids have been banned in France, as they have been in Germany, Italy and Slovenia but none of this washes with UK farming representatives who think they know better than any Johnny Foreigner.

So how are the French getting twice the yield of UK farmers? The answer is companion crops. French farmers grow vetch between drills of rape as a means of controlling the pesky cabbage stem flea beetle.  Sounds preferable to me but it’s a common aspect of life in the UK that the practices of foreigners are distrusted. We prefer to muddle along – think of the sorry state of our rail services, what passes for double glazing here, dragging our heels over renewables, hot and cold taps! What’s that all about? And farming – that the French have succeeded is no recommendation. We will have to reinvent the wheel – over and over again.

UK farmers are addicted to spraying crops with insecticides. My friendly farmer at the start uses them liberally. He has to because he doesn’t use crop rotation. Remember the fundamental rule of growing clean crops used to be crop rotation to prevent the build up of pests with preferences for single crops? Then using pesticides became the norm and to hell with the consequences. It could even be argued that if UK farmers produced higher yields through their use they were a good idea but they don’t.

The EU CAP reforms just announced are designed to encourage a move away from single crop production although this is just tinkling with the issue and will not tackle the problem of over-use of pesticides. Scottish arable farms which grow only barley will be forced to find additional crops and the cry is that no longer will Scotland be able to satisfy its own whisky with enough malted barley. Personally I would welcome more oat fields as a break from barley and rapeseed. Incidentally farms will also have to have Ecological Focus Areas to encourage biodiversity because of the problem of decline among our insects and birds through over-cultivation of our agricultural land as well as the impact of toxic chemicals. There are the inevitable complaints that this is a return to set-aside. Well if that’s the only way to halt the eradication of natural habitats for our wildlife then so be it.

honey bee

We need our bee populations every bit as much as we need farmers with their crops of rapeseed. How often have you heard how it’s the farmer who is the guardian of the countryside? Some are and some have a lot to learn just what that means.

Farm Subsidies

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