If you are a tillage farmer, you could be forgiven for believing that the European Commission does little to help tillage farming.

We have a ban on certain chemical actives, a virtual ban on genetically modified crops (not that there are any that suit our system either way), a current ban on new plant breeding techniques and a willingness to continue to allow imports of products treated with banned actives coming from other countries.

Tillage farmers know that many actives have been banned without access to alternative technologies and GM crops. But, while these things are not available to EU growers, products produced using these technologies can be imported for use in the EU, where they act to depress prices and displace native supply.

Income pressure

On top of these challenges, tillage farmers are now facing another big erosion of entitlement value at a time when climate change requirements need more acres in tillage, while all official policies act to pressure incomes in the sector.

Ongoing convergence and environmental policies continue to erode the supports that have been critical in keeping so many growers afloat.

The pesticide conundrum

As we lose more actives from the tillage toolbox, growers can rightly ask why something can be imported that had been treated with a product banned in the EU?

Given current policy direction, why is the EU happy for environment, operator or consumer safety to be compromised in other countries, when it is hypersensitive about these matters internally?

This pesticide use issue has been considered in official EU circles for some time now and last week we received some clarity on official thinking. At a webinar titled Food and Farming: what future for Europe? Claire Bury, deputy director-general in DG SANTE, provided some clarity.

Discussing EU Farm to Fork and sustainability policy strategies, she commented on the proposal to reduce pesticide use and reform the Sustainable Use Directive.

She said the EU believes that products that are banned in the EU should have their maximum residue limit (MRL) removed on imports.

If the MRLs were removed, imports that showed any detectable trace of a banned product could not enter the EU (in theory at least). Such an action would be welcomed by the tillage sector, but Bury quickly moved to substantially dilute her initial comment. As has happened so often in the past, the EU removed products from the internal market knowing that World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would continue to enforce the MRL system for imports.

An unlevel pitch

So once again, we have an EU aspiration acting against crop producers, knowing that any wish to ban imports treated with substances banned in the EU would not be implemented. The unlevel playing pitch becomes even more unlevel. However, in the case of actives that are universally demonised, such as the neonicotinoids, Bury said that the WTO would have difficulty enforcing such MRLs on imports that contained these actives.

She did say, however, that the Commission is engaging with countries who supply imports to indicate the EU’s perspective on this issue. But in the meantime, it is “live, horse and you will get grass”. Irish and EU growers continue to lose actives, while those who can produce at lower cost, thanks to access to cheaper banned actives, can continue to supply imports into the EU, and at lower prices.