Andy Atkins blogged in the Huffington Post last Thursday that the recent publication of the Government's draft National Pollinator Strategy was largely ignored by the national media. He was right, and he and others are doing a positive service by highlighting the consultation and, alongside it, the need for a comprehensive action plan to help our pollinators.
However, it's a great shame that once again we see that the issue is being used to take a lazy shot at the use of pesticides by UK farmers, and at modern farming in general, with Andy calling on the Government "to get tough on pesticides" and for farmers to "get off the chemical treadmill."
The problem with this approach is that it undermines the importance of modern technologies such as pesticides in meeting the challenges of food security. Only this week, the UN has reiterated its call for food producers to urgently increase production if we are to feed a global population of 9bn by 2050. Clearly it's vital that this increase in production is sustainable, and so it will have to be done by harnessing modern technology that will allow us to get the most out of our agricultural land. If we believe that turning to low-input methods such as organic production will get us there, we are sorely mistaken.
The excessive focus on the impact of pesticides on pollinator health also runs the risk of shifting attention away from the range of problems affecting pollinators. This may be one reason there was such little media attention on last week's launch - the furore around neonicotinoid insecticides last year has given the misleading impression this is a simple issue with a simple answer. Research shows there are a myriad of factors that impact on bee health. For managed honeybees, for example, disease is by far and away the biggest problem - and recent studies show that disease in honeybees may well be impacting on wild bee health too. The severe weather and harsh winters in the UK in recent years have not been conducive to pollinator survival either.
Unfortunately, in some quarters the debate around pollinators provides an easy vehicle to support hostility to modern farming methods - methods that may be at odds with bucolic visions of a non-existent rural idyll, but which are in fact vital to producing a safe and affordable supply of food. But if you advocate low-input farming, you also advocate low levels of productivity - and that means either less food (at a time when we need to produce more), or more land being turned over to agriculture. Despite this, it is often the same voices who, rightly, promote the importance of creating habitat that can support pollinator populations and other wildlife alongside our farmland. These two aspirations are simply not compatible if we're to feed a hungry world. If we want to ensure there is land available for the benefit of biodiversity and wildlife, we need to optimise yields on existing farmland, not reduce them.
The good news is that pesticides can be part of the solution. Not only do they help farmers combat the pests and diseases that threaten their crops year after year, so forming a vital part of our response to the food security challenge, but they can also be used constructively in maintaining wildlife friendly habitats alongside our farmland.
Some of the best examples of conservation farming in the UK take a conventional approach that includes pesticides - both in growing crops and in managing land for biodiversity and the environment. And It's interesting to note that a recent study by the Australian Government of the much maligned neonicotinoid group of insecticides - blamed by many as a key cause of bee decline here in the UK - found that the introduction of this class of pesticide has, in fact, led to "an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides."
The consultation on the National Pollinator Strategy now provides a chance to develop a comprehensive approach to improving pollinator health, and that should include closely examining the impact of modern farming and pesticide use on pollinator populations. UK farmers have made enormous strides in recent decades in ensuring they protect biodiversity, maintain habitats and use inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides responsibly. Part of our approach to protecting pollinator populations should be to continue this good work - for instance ensuring farmers are properly trained in pesticide use and that they consider other approaches to managing pests through integrated pest management principles.
But ultimately the question is this: can we produce enough food to feed a growing world population, and can we do so while maintaining the natural environment on which both farming and wildlife rely? The answer is yes, but only by harnessing technology, and managing farmland in a way that optimises both food production and environmental protection. Pesticides are part of the solution, not part of the problem.