by Rob Edwards and Nash Riggins
The latest survey for the Scottish government reveals that the amount of all pesticides applied per hectare by soft fruit growers, centred in Angus, leapt by 38% between 2010 and 2012.
Much of the increase was in fungicides to try and prevent rot in wet weather. But there was also a 36% jump in the use of chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide that can damage the nervous system and kill wildlife.
The increases were described as “alarming” by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, while the Soil Association, which certifies organic food, warned of potential risks to health. The pesticides industry, however, accused them of trying to “scare” people.
Over 1,500 hectares of Scotland were planted with strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, blackberries and other soft fruits in 2012, more than four-fifths of them in Angus. As much as 96% of the entire crop was treated with at least one pesticide, including fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and biological control agents.
The survey by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture in Edinburgh, concluded that the total quantity of pesticides rose from 17.5 to 19.6 tonnes between 2010 and 2012. When a 19% drop in the total area grown was taken into account, that amounted to a per hectare increase of 38%.
The usage of chlorpyrifos rose from 652 to 718 kilogrammes over the same period. Again, when the reduction in total crop area was taken into account, officials calculated that meant a per hectare rise of 36%.
In July a mere two tablespoons of chlorpyrifos leaked into the River Kennet in Berkshire and wiped out all insect life over a 10-mile stretch. Anglers feared that damage to fish could be irreversible.
According to Dr Maggie Keegan, head of policy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the increased use of pesticides was worrying “because of the damaging knock-on effects these toxic chemicals can have on non-target species such as honeybees, bumblebees and other wildlife higher up the food chain.”
She pointed out, however, that new European Union laws would oblige farmers to reduce the amounts of chemicals used on crops from next year. “That should prove a boost to wildlife in the countryside,” she said.
Laura Stewart, director of Soil Association Scotland, warned that agricultural pesticides could damage the environment and leave residues in food that were a health concern. ”Particular problems arise when more than one type of chemical is used in a so-called cocktail effect,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“Research on mixed chemical use, even at low levels, shows it can affect reproductive, immune and nervous systems. We need more research into this area.”
But Nick von Westenhol, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association representing pesticide manufacturers, accused campaigners of attempting to frighten consumers. “Pesticides are among the most heavily regulated products in the UK,” he said.
“Quite simply, fruit grown using pesticides is safe to eat. It’s a shame that the great benefits they provide to growers and consumers alike are undermined by simplistic objections to their use by badly informed pressure groups.“
Phillippa Dodds, an agronomist with the soft fruit marketing company, Angus Growers, said that pesticides were used responsibly in accordance with all the rules. Alternatives were being developed “to minimise our reliance on pesticides in the production of safe high quality fruit,” she added.
The Scottish government attributed the increased use of pesticides to 2012’s record wet summer. It was “mainly due to the increased use of fungicides to treat fungal diseases which thrive in wet conditions,” said a spokeswoman.
“Pesticides have to go through Europe’s rigorous assessment procedure which includes scrutiny by independent scientific experts. If approved a consent will be issued which will state how the pesticide can be used.”
This story was followed up by The Times. It also prompted two letters to the Sunday Herald, and a follow-up by pupils from James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh.