U.K. canola decline blamed on neonic ban

Yields have remained steady, but acreage has dropped to one million this year from 1.8 million in 2012

The United Kingdom used to grow a surprising amount of canola.

Except they don’t call it canola. It’s known as oilseed rape.

In 2012, U.K. farmers seeded about 1.8 million acres of oilseed rape.

But over the last eight years, acreage consistently dropped, sinking to 1.3 million in 2019 and possibly 1.04 million in 2020.

One large reason for the decline is neonicotinoids. Rather, the lack of neonics in the U.K., says a Syngenta rep.

“Since we lost neonic seed treatments we are struggling, really struggling, to grow oilseed rape,” said Scott Cockburn, business manager with Syngenta U.K.

Cockburn spoke mid-February at Crop Connect, a farm conference in Winnipeg hosted by Manitoba commodity groups.

In 2013, the European Commission banned the use of thiamethoxam, a Syngenta product, along with clothianidin and imidacloprid, Bayer products.

The ban applied to flowering crops like oilseed rape. Europe imposed the restrictions because of a potential risk to bees.

In April 2019, Health Canada took a more nuanced position on bees and neonics.

Some uses of neonics may represent a risk to bees, but others do not, it said.

“Health Canada has announced that it will be cancelling some uses of these pesticides and changing other conditions of use such as restricting the timing of application. Remaining uses (e.g., treatment on canola seeds) are not expected to pose unacceptable risks to bees and other pollinators.”

Some environmental groups have argued that neonicotinoids are unnecessary in crop production. As evidence, they pointed to data from Europe, showing that oilseed rape yields have remained steady since the neonic ban.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, Cockburn said.

U.K. data does show consistent yields from 2013 to 2019. But thousands of seeded acres go unharvested, every year, because of severe insect damage.

“If you would put in the figure … of the total acreage we plant and the final tonnage, then we’d see our yields go down an awful lot,” he said.

In addition, the oilseed rape industry lost hundreds of U.K. growers, who gave up on the crop. The remaining growers are dedicated to oilseed rape and continue to plant it, even without neonics. Those dedicated growers are likely the best producers and probably prop up the average yield.

“The people able to take crops to harvest are probably getting slightly better at it,” he said.

Cockburn is not the only person who attributes the acreage decline to the neonic ban.

In 2017, researchers from Newcastle University reached the same conclusion.

“The U.K. oilseed rape area has fallen from a peak of 756,000 hectares (1.87 million acres) in 2011-12,” they wrote in a report. “An increased incidence of damage caused by cabbage stem flea beetle is being reported as a major reason for this decline following the ban on the use of neonicotinoid dressed seed.”

The British Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board also argues that growers are struggling with cabbage stem flea beetles, the main pest of oilseed rape.

“Originally a problem in East Anglia, it now covers England and Wales and is spreading in Scotland,” its website says. “Since 2013, when neonicotinoid-treated seed was withdrawn from use in oilseed rape, management of this pest has become more challenging.”

Some growers in England, Scotland and Wales have turned to integrated pest management techniques to cope with the cabbage stem flea beetles. Many others have opted for pyrethroids, a class of insecticides.

Unfortunately, a few growers are overusing pyrethroids.

Some are spraying pyrethroids four times during the growing season, Cockburn said.

Such overuse is causing resistance to pyrethroids in the cabbage stem flea beetle population.

Looking ahead, Cockburn expects more U.K. growers will try integrated pest management and strategies like cover crops to cope with flea beetles.

Another potential solution is plant breeding. Researchers are working with genes from white mustard, a plant that’s resistant to cabbage stem flea beetles.

A producer at the Winnipeg meeting asked Cockburn if the U.K. government would reinstate the use of neonics, now that Brexit is a reality and farmers are free from EU regulations.

His answer?

It’s not going to happen.

“It was an EU decision but we fully bought into (it),” he said. “I cannot envisage a point where we will go backwards.”

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