East Anglia: Vining pea crop ‘under threat’ from Europe’s pesticide ban

The pea harvest in progress; the new deal agreeed this week is a boost for local farmers

The pea harvest in progress; the new deal agreeed this week is a boost for local farmers - Credit: Eastern Daily Press, Archant

Yields of peas would be hit next year, which could add further pressure on stocks of frozen peas after two very difficult seasons, said former farmers’ leader Richard Hirst.

He was at a loss to understand why vining peas, one of the country’s favourite frozen vegetables for more than 60 years, could not use a tried-and-tested seed protection. The European Commission has banned the use of neonicotinoid insecticides from December 1 in so-called “flowering” crops.

Broadland farmer Mr Hirst, chairman of Anglia Pea Growers, said that the crop did not attract bees unlike oilseed rape. “Peas are self-pollinating and they don’t need bees to pollinate unlike crops of beans. Bees don’t feed on peas, it is as simple as that,” he said.

His 131 members in Suffolk and Norfolk, who grow about a ninth of the country’s area of about 75,000 acres of vining peas, had been using coating technology for the past dozen years. He said that efforts were being made to keep peas off Europe’s “hit list” because otherwise growers would face serious problems.

As a former chairman of the NFU’s horticulture board, Mr Hirst, said that this class of insecticide has been used as a seed treatment for at least the past 10 years or more. When the crop was in the ground, usually for between 12 and 14 weeks, a seed coating with the protective agent was very effective against pests.

He said that the implications both for growers and also for consumers must be concerning especially if yields were to decline. And a shortage of peas last season, caused by the wettest summer for a century, hit stocks, said Mr Hirst, of Ormesby, whose family has been growing peas for more than half a century.

The ability to protect pea seed with a specific insecticide produced several benefits – to farmer and the environment. “We’ve had a big yield improvement because it has an impact on root development. It prevents some grazing by soil-borne nematodes and things.”

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And it avoids the need for field sprays to prevent attack by pea and bean weevils and thrips, said Mr Hirst, who warned that to protect crops more active ingredient might then be needed. He had heard one member of the British Beekeepers’ Association on Radio Two say that overhead and field spraying was likely to be more damaging.

In the past, growers would have to spray much more regularly. “Aphids can absolutely devastate crops of peas, particularly at flowering. You can lose a crop. We have had crops lost because of aphid grazing but the use of neonictinoids has virtually stopped that happening.”

He had not been convinced that the current scientific evidence justified such a wide-ranging ban of key crop protection products. And if another group of products, the triazoles, was also lost then, it could be a further concern. “If we lose that group of fungicides out of the crop protection portfolio, we’ve got some serious problems coming ahead” especially it was not possible to control fusiarium, which would be far more damaging to human health.

Mr Hirst said that his members had not drilled peas in March because it was too cold. “In terms of drilling and timing we’re behind where we’d like to be,” he added.