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Forty years on: a new approach to farming pesticides

Friday 11 April 2003

In 1960, our country columnist John Sheard was one of the first journalists in Britain to expose the dangers of the widespread use of farm pesticides. At last, he can now welcome a coordinated, scientific approach to this sad subject

IT WAS when the hawks started dying out that my professional career took up a course which brought me to be writing this page today. I was a bright young freelance trying to make my name in Fleet Street when a contact with the RSPB told me that something strange was happening to our birds of prey.

It was notso much that they were dying. They weren't actually falling off their perches. But they had stopped reproducing - their eggs lay sterile in their nests. And that, of course, threatened entire species.

Scientists had spotted this worrying trend and had submitted the sterile eggs to minute analysis. To their mystification, they had found minute traces of three highly potent chemicals - aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor - which were used as seed dressings on corn drops to protect against insect attack.

What puzzled the scientists, however, was how it got into hawks' eggs? They preyed on other birds and corn was not part of their diet. It was some months before they realised that these deadly poisons were working their way through the food chain.

Songbirds were eating the dressed corn without noticeable side effects. But further analysis showed that these birds were slowly building up concentrations of the poisons in their livers. When the hawks ate them, they were getting concentrated doses of these poisons which were making them sterile.

This was one of my first ever "scoops" and it made headlines in all the so-called "quality" broadsheets. As a young man who had spent his childhood roaming the countryside, it became a way of combining a love of the outdoors with my chosen trade.

Aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor were banned after the ensuing uproar but the incident was to carry an unfortunate legacy. It was, as far as I can remember, the first time that farmers were blamed for destroying wildlife.

That was a terrible injustice because farmers are not chemists or biologists. They were offered these products by reputable companies and had no reason to suppose that they were extremely hazardous.

If anyone were at fault, it should have been the agri-chemical industry, for not carrying out more long-term research. Sadly, there have been mistakes after mistake of a similar kind since 1960, sometimes putting human health at risk, and it is always the farmers who get the blame.

Now, after more than 40 long years, there is at last a chance to put all this behind us, thanks to an ugly yet vitally important new acronym: CPMP, which has the approval of almost everyone who is anyone in the countryside.

It stands for Crop Protection Management Plan, which will allow each individual farmer to work out how much, if any, pesticide he should use, how to use and store it, and point out any hazards that should be avoided.

The CPMP programme has been put together after a year's discussions amongst experts from more than a dozen interested bodies, including DEFRA, the NFU, the RSPB, water companies and the agricultural supply industry.

In the words of Lord Whitty, the countryside minister at DEFRA, "Reducing the negative impacts of pesticide use is an important part of delivering both sustainable agriculture, as set out in the Government's strategy for sustainable farming and food, and the high standards of countryside management that the public demands from the farming industry."

It is believed that hundreds of farmers are ready to sign up to the deal and, with luck, half a million acres of farmland will be subject to CPMPs by the end of next year.

Now any regular reader of this column will know that I tend to look with a jaundiced eye on most of this government's attempts to interfere with country matters. But this, it seems to me, is a great idea. I can't quite understand, however, why it has taken 43 years!

Farmers and growers wanting a copy of the plan or more information should log on to www.NFUonline.com or www.voluntaryinitiative.org.uk.

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