The Risk-Monger

 

The Risk-Monger spent the day on a large Belgian farm having the opportunity to see the challenges and opportunities farmers are presently facing. I was able to tour the fields and barns, hear how they are trying to address sustainability questions. I was impressed but I could not help thinking how the idealists (those cosmopolitan zealots who run activist campaigns to try to handcuff these farmers) should take the opportunity of going out and getting a dose of reality rather than pontificating on issues they know nothing about. Pity that on this day they chose not to attend.

Hof ten Bosch farm near Huldenberg, Belgium
Hof ten Bosch farm near Huldenberg, Belgium

The Hof ten Bosch farm is 140 hectares and cultivates wheat, corn, potatoes, pears and sugar beets. It has been a family farm for four generations, currently run by two Flemish brothers. I learnt that 25% of the potatoes in Belgium’s Lay’s crisps were harvested from this farm so the demand for quality and “sustainable agriculture” is of high importance.

Integrated Pest Management: A silly concept

Sustainable agriculture is a buzzword that made me cringe almost as much as the phrase: “integrated pest management (IPM)”. Both of these terms imply that farmers have not been sustainable or care about their land and need educating. This is offensive. These are terms coined by activists and readily adopted by EU officials who don’t even have window-boxes to cultivate. Industry noted the restrictions and has tried to campaign for integrated crop management and over the next few months I will try to articulate the need for “integrated food management”. Pigeon-holing the food chain has allowed far too many stupid people to have social media success promoting narrow ideas that will be horribly destructive to food production and global food security.

The sugar beet on the left was pulled from a section treated with herbicides. The one on the right was not. You be the judge!
The sugar beet on the left was pulled from a section treated with herbicides. The one on the right was herbicide free. You be the judge!

A basic reality on why I think IPM is a silly concept conceived by naïve idealists. From my childhood, I can assure you that no farmer wants to use pesticides. They are expensive, hazardous to use and are short-term solutions. So using as little pesticide as possible has always been a farmer’s objective. But they know what happens when they do not use them and they know they work (regardless what those with religion in Brussels tell them). Protecting the water, soil and air has always been key to ensuring that the farmers’ children will have the opportunities their parents had given them. Sustainable agriculture and IPM are not concepts developed by some clever Brussels civil servant – they are realities lived on the farm from the time children start to help their parents.

Sustainable agriculture and IPM are not concepts developed by some clever Brussels civil servant – they are realities lived on the farm from the time children start to help their parents.

 

Precision farming

If there is one thing that had my mouth hanging open, it would be the opportunity to witness the advances in precision farming. With the use of satellite positioning (down to the centimetre), clear field imaging and the means to test soil quality, farmers are able to apply crop protection materials and nutrients only where needed. I was told that the next step will be the use of precision drones. This farm also had its own weather station to give more precise data than the nearest station 10km away. Result: less waste, cost savings, more effective applications.

Precision farming tractor cab control centre. A far cry from the idealist vision of an organic farmer's pitchfork!
Precision farming tractor cab control centre. A far cry from the idealist vision of an organic farmer’s pitchfork!

People like Dave Goulson, who think that farmers are stupid, should spend some time sitting in the tractor cab testing out the technology. After a few minutes staring into the multiple screens, Dr Goulson would definitely need some educating.

Pest management

As farmers by nature aim to apply as little pesticide as possible, we were able to see other ways that this farm addressed pest management by discouraging some insects and encouraging others. Hof ten Bosch farm uses pheromones to discourage certain pests from breeding, tricks to attract other pest predators and techniques to keep mice populations down with birds. The mixed hedges and ecological strips with staggered flowering periods to strengthen pollinators and pest predators was another impressive innovation on farming from my childhood days.

A mixed hedge is impressive but it is a lot of work and investment. Farmers need collaboration.
A mixed hedge is impressive but it is a lot of work and investment. Farmers need collaboration.

The costs of developing and maintaining these strips, as well as raising wild bees, is quite imposing and we cannot pretend that small farmers will readily volunteer their time and money to these techniques without clear results. In conversations with others on the tour, we began to wonder whether more EU CAP funding could be devoted to some sort of subcontracted ecological services operation that would maintain such mixed hedges. As an MEP challenged me: Yes, but from what budget would that come from? I’m sure we could find a few million euros sloshing around in the CAP.

Pesticide management

The tour showed clearly how innovations in pesticide management ensured greater safety to the environment and farmers. In cases of spillage when filling the sprayers, there were three possible waste-water management systems available to avoid chemicals finding their way into the environment.

All pesticide bottles now have universal cap sizes so the same mixers can be used for all products. These mixers not only allow for safe usage, precise dosage and no spillage, but also has a comprehensive rinsing system. I was impressed to see that the Belgian crop protection industry has a plastic bottle take-back recycling programme approaching 90%.

We also had a demonstration of farmer personal protection equipment. Things have definitely changed from the time when I was twelve years old and holding the hose while my father sprayed our strawberry field.

Integrated zealot management

The day before the farm visit, I attended an Integrated Pest Management conference in the European Parliament. Hosted by MEP Pavel Poc, it was organised by the anti-neonicotinoid pesticide NGO start-up, Pollinis. While they are not at all transparent in their funding, they seem to be fairly rich since they could pay for a Burson-Marsteller consultant to moderate and the travel costs and perdiems for an IUCN anti-neonic taskforce scientist to fly to Brussels for a ten minute apocalyptic spiel. I suspect from the bias on their website that Pollinis is the NGO campaign arm of the IUCN anti-neonic Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides. So perhaps their funding is also coming from the organic industry via the IUCN … until they become transparent, we really don’t know. They also forgot to include any farmers on the main panel (a good indication of another band of cosmopolitan zealots).

The event was graced with the presence of Henriette Christensen, from PAN Europe. Within two minutes she offended all farmers, admitting that while some might be good, a lot of them are “bad” – arbitrarily dumping pesticides into the environment for no reason. Really now. Henriette then showed her cosmopolitan zeal by saying that IPM needs to be brought to the farmers. in other words, another fundamentalist zealot is going to educate farmers with her experience from tending to the window-box gardens in the Mundo B building. Sickening but totally predictable.

 

Disclaimer: The Risk-Monger, along with everyone else on the tour, received a lunch hosted by Bayer Crop Science. They were open to hard questions and allowed people to make up their own minds. They organise these tours from time to time between busy periods on the farm and I strongly recommend that those involved in agricultural issues take the opportunity to see for themselves what farmers are facing and what they are doing. I am fully aware that there is a large population of actors in Brussels who prefer ignorance rather than letting reality impinge on their idealism, but I am hopeful that not everybody thinks like that. For more information on the farm tours in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany, go to www.forwardfarming.com.

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