Orders of the Day — Horticulture (Crop Spray Damage)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th November 1957.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

10.6 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Aitken Mr William Aitken , Bury St Edmunds

I very much welcome this opportunity of raising the subject of crop damage to horticulturists from spraying. It is not only a matter of equity and fair dealing but one which is becoming of increasing urgency to a very large number of people engaged in agriculture and horticulture. One of the major post-war contributions of science to agriculture has been the remarkable advance in the control of the many insect pests, fungi, weeds, etc., by the expert use of chemical and hormone sprays.

The modern farmer and farmworker have always been pretty versatile characters, but I doubt very much if there is any other occupation in which so many people have had to acquire in recent times not only the traditional arts of good husbandry, but also a practical working knowledge of the mechanical engineering problems on the farm, genetics, ecology, histology, botany, chemistry and the like, to say nothing of the less esoteric pursuits of marketing and accounting. Some of these people have even acquired a not inconsiderable expertise in dealing with the Government.

There is no other industry quite so conscious of its duties and obligations to its neighbours. It is for that reason that I willingly undertook, on behalf of a number of farmers and horticulturists in my constituency, to raise this question of the best way of dealing with the ever-growing hazards which crop spraying presents to neighbouring horticulturists and farmers.

The farmer has managed to insulate himself against at least some of the ups and downs of his occupation, and he is the very first to appreciate and to understand the very much greater hazards that face the horticulturists. Quite aside from the vagaries of the weather, there are the fluctuations of market, the machinations of those who stand between consumer and producer, the wiles of the importer, the cost of transport, and the ever-growing wages bill—to say nothing of the increase in interest rates.

All those things seem to work most of the time against the horticulturists. No Government have yet found, and probably never will find, a formula which will give the horticulturist the same degree of protection that we give to our farmers and manufacturers, and that if no other reason would be enough for the Ministry of Agriculture to give the most earnest and careful consideration to this new and growing hazard in agricultural production; that is, the ever-increasing use of hormone and contact sprays.

Our yields per acre of wheat and barley and other crops are among the highest in the world. Many of the weed, fungi and insect pests are things of the past; if they are not, they should be, and eventually they will be. More and more efficient mechanical devices have been developed for atomising liquids used in sprays. Some can atomise liquids to a density only slightly more than that of the air; and when we consider the growing use of the aeroplane, helicopter and other such devices, we realise that the use of sprays is becoming more economic to the farmer.

All these things are also making crop spraying more and more dangerous to neighbouring horticulturists as well as to neighbouring farmers who may be working on a different crop cycle. What may be beneficent and suitable for one crop may well prove lethal to many others. Among the most vulnerable of the horticulture crops are young lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflowers, cabbage and blossoming fruits. One difficulty is that many of these crops are most vulnerable just at the time when the farmer wishes to do his spraying.

The use and variety of these sprays is increasing all the time and soon there will be a spray for destroying the wild oat. Already people have got very close to a practical spray against the yellow virus in sugar beet. The more varied these sprays, the greater the hazard to other crops and to animals. I heard of one farmer who had engaged a firm of contractors to spray arsenic on his potato haulm. The contractor's men washed their oilskins in the cattle trough and as a result twenty of the farmer's best cattle died. It took him about a year to get half the compensation to which he was really entitled.

Earlier this year a group of farmers in my constituency conferred with the local horticulturists. It was the most friendly meeting possible. The farmers agreed that crop spraying was not only a growing hazard to their horticulturist neighbours, but an admitted liability against which farmers should protect themselves. Of course, there are a number of insurance companies which issue liability policies covering this hazard among others. I know that a good many farmers avail themselves of such cover. At least 50 per cent. of the farmers in my constituency do that. However, it is often in the worst cases where no insurance cover has been taken out and also it is in some of the worst cases that no liability can be proved.

A case which came to my attention some time ago involved damage to young tomatoes under glass. Apparently that is a quite frequent occurrence, because in the warm spring weather when the ventilators of the glass houses are left open, an inward current of air is induced, and if there is any crop spray about, it gets into the greenhouses. A well-known example in East Anglia is that of a man who lost about £7,000 worth of crops as a result of spray drift. There was another case in my constituency where a large field of newly planted lettuce was completely ruined.

This is not the first time this matter has been raised in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) put a Question to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in June of last year. At that time the Answer was that the British Weed Control Council, on which all the interests concerned were represented, had made recommendations for the avoidance of damage and the need for care in spraying. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us tonight that much more is now being done. I know that some consideration is given by the farmers' unions to the question of compulsory insurance against this form of third party damage. Many of us dislike the word "compulsory", and, in any case, I am not sure that this is the remedy at this stage of crop protection against these hazards.

One of the difficulties about insurance is, of course, that the farmer has to prove liability, and the insurance companies, naturally enough, try to keep the claims to a minimum. But that question of insurance will, I think, have to be dealt with sooner or later.

There is another possible solution. That is that those who sustain damage, and cannot prosecute a claim for lack of evidence or some other reason, should have recourse to a central compensation fund. I will endeavour to contain my astonishment if my hon. Friend tells me that the Treasury would be very reluctant to consider any such contribution or grant. It might be possible to consider this in the light of perhaps a four-way contribution—a contribution from the people who use sprays, that is, the farmers using the sprays; the horticulturists themselves; the manufacturers of sprays; and, possibly, a contribution from the Government.

I wonder, also, whether they are doing any research into developing less volatile forms of hormone spray; if they are considering requiring everyone who embarks on spraying operations to notify a suitable local authority as to the date, place and time of spraying. I understand that some research is now going on at Nottingham University on the diagnostic aspect of spray damage. That is that they would develop some particularly susceptible plants which could be planted out in a field and which would be indicators as to the kind of crop spray damage that was taking place. I am not sure, too, that they cannot find a way of developing a chemical indicator along the lines of the old gas indicator during the war, perhaps an indicator which would also tell the direction from which the spray is coming.

I know that the Ministry has given some publicity, by means of leaflets, to farmers on the risks involved in spraying operations, and I have no doubt that it will continue this next season. But it seems to me there ought to be several lines of attack on this problem, all of which would lead, first, to greater care being taken, secondly, to easier identification of the source of the damage. This would have two effects. One is that it would encourage some people to take up insurance, because if it could be proved where the damage was coming from they would be more inclined to insure themselves.

Many farmers are, understandably, reluctant to take legal proceedings against their neighbours. In cases where clear proof has been obtained of the source of damage that has been done, very often, as has happened in my own constituency, an amicable settlement has been reached. In any case, I hope that my hon. Friend will look towards the manufacturers of these sprays to see whether there is not some way by which they can be induced to take part of the responsibility for these liabilities. It seems to me that with the ever-increasing efficiency of these sprays, mechanically as well as biologically and chemically, it would not be asking too much of them to make a contribution, perhaps to the suggested compensation fund.

Finally, I should like to suggest that all these means and perhaps many others might be the subject of an investigation by a Departmental committee. If all these factors could be investigated, and the people who were capable of giving expert advice could be brought together, I think that a good many things might be done that are not being done today. There is no doubt that these crop sprayings are bringing immense advantages to the farmer and great advantages to the consumer. It is a developing technique, and I think that now is the time and not later, when we are in a good deal more trouble than we are now, to look into these matters and try to find the answer.

10.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

The subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) has raised is an important and rather difficult one, but I am very glad that he has raised it and that I have the opportunity of saying something about it.

As my hon. Friend said, agriculture owes a great deal to the development of sprays for weed control and plant protection. The hormone sprays to which he referred for weed control, developed first during the war, have now become a powerful instrument of husbandry and there can be little doubt that they have contributed materially to the encouraging increase that has taken place in recent years in crop yields per acre. Their use is extending, and I am sure it will continue to extend widely.

Progress, as is usual and as my hon. Friend has reminded us, brings its problems. Here the problem is drift, which often occurs in spraying and the direction and the incidence of which it is difficult to control or to foresee. A certain amount of damage has been done to surrounding crops on various occasions. My hon. Friend gave the interesting example of the glass house, which one would think would be free from the risk but, as I have myself seen, that is a particular case where there is real danger.

It is fair to remind the House that damage is often done to the other crops of the farmer who is doing the spraying. When horticultural crops are at a critical stage of growth the damage can be very serious indeed. There have been reports of losses in the last few years, especially in districts where cereal crops and horticulture are mixed. My hon. Friend's constituency is, I think, one of those.

Horticulturists have expressed much anxiety through the National Farmers' Union and elsewhere, and there have been many suggestions about what might be done. I assure my hon. Friend that my Ministry is very conscious indeed of the problem and we have been giving a great deal of thought to what we can do to help. My hon. Friend suggested a Departmental committee; I should like to give thought to that suggestion. If we think it would be helpful we certainly should not hesitate to do something on those lines.

It is clear that the lines on which we can give most help at the moment are two. First, there is research into spray materials, plant physiology, the way in which spray drift works, and the operation of spraying machines. Secondly, there is advice and publicity, using the best available knowledge, to help to prevent, or at any rate to reduce, the possibility and impact of damage. Perhaps there is a third line too, on which we are very ready to examine any proposal which may be made, although the possibilities in this direction do not appear great; I am thinking of the question of administrative or legal measures of control or remedy.

First, then, research. This is the province of the Agricultural Research Council. The advances in weed control that have distinguished the last decade or so are themselves the products of research and a number of agricultural research institutions are carrying out investigations on all sides of the subject. There are the Unit of Experimental Agronomy at Oxford and the Unit of Plant Growth Substances at Wye, the investigations at the horticultural research stations at Long Ashton and East Mailing and at the National Vegetable Research Station, and the work of National Institute of Agricultural Engineers at Silsoe.

These, in combination, are carrying out fundamental research into the growth and behaviour of weeds, the effects of weed killers and the problems of spraying machines and of spraying. This research, while not directly concerned with spray-drift damage, may assist in finding a solution as I think my hon. Friend indicated.

General research into greater selectivity may obviously give helpful results, but apart from general research the Agricultural Research Council has been asked by the Agricultural Improvement Council to help on this problem of drift damage. Earlier this year it arranged meetings of the leading research workers covering the biological, meteorological and engineering aspects. As a result, various lines of research are being examined, for example, air movements, the relation between dose and damage, the development of spray boom shields, diagnosis of damage and study of possible indicator crops.

My right hon. Friend referred to leaflets being published. In one of them we gave an illustration of a boom shield that we thought most useful. The Council has agreed to make a grant to Nottingham University, to which my hon. Friend referred, and work on the last two matters is being grant-aided. The Council has suggested that a field study should be made of cases of damage in order to obtain basic information for the use of the research worker, and the Ministry proposes to arrange for this.

Advice and publicity must be based on the best knowledge available at the time. It has obviously been essential to do as much as possible to bring home the dangers to those using sprays. It would be very unfortunate if the use of so valuable a weapon as weed killer sprays were prejudiced by their careless and inconsiderate use. The Ministry, in co-operation with the National Farmers Union and agricultural contractors—all being associated in the Weed Control Council—has done a great deal this season to publicise the dangers and as far as possible the remedies. The National Agricultural Advisory Service has been asked to take every opportunity to give help. A leaflet has been given the widest circulation and copies were sent individually to all farmers in the counties reporting the most damage. There have been numerous articles, exhibits and Press and radio references.

We do not, of course, on present knowledge, possess all the answers and a great deal more research is needed. We need more experience of preventive methods like boom shields before we can make confident recommendations. I think, however, that it can fairly be claimed that there has already been an improvement in the practice of farmers using these sprays and we shall certainly keep up the pressure as far as we are concerned.

I now turn to possible administrative measures. There is no doubt that we are all presented with a difficult problem and, although much thought has been given to it, I cannot say that a solution has yet been found. In the ordinary way most farmers who spray insure themselves against claims, and legitimate claims are met; but there is the hard case to which my hon. Friend referred where the source of damage cannot be identified. As my hon. Friend said, compulsory insurance just would not meet that case. It is indeed surprising that there should be so many of these instances where it is well-nigh impossible to trace the origin of the damage.

My hon. Friend suggested that there might be a case for a compensation fund, financed in various ways, or that there might be some form of control or registration of spraying. It might be helpful if information were made available of what spraying had taken place. It might then be easier to pinpoint where responsibility lay. All the suggestions which have been put forward are open to one objection or another. One big difficulty is that spraying goes on all over the country and in the great majority of cases the possibilities of damage are very slight indeed.

Any solution which would impose obligations or burdens on those engaged in spraying must take account of that fact. While it is quite true that in my hon. Friend's constituency and in many others in the Eastern Counties there are real dangers, there are many parts of the country where horticultural crops are not grown. Therefore, any general enforcement on farmers all over the country would appear to be going further than is really necessary.

Our efforts must continue to see whether a generally acceptable solution can be found, and the possibility of legislation to authorise it would certainly not be excluded. In reply to my hon. Friend's invitation to commit the Treasury, I do not see any possibility of assistance from public funds as compensation in a matter of this kind. I do not see how one could argue that assistance should be given from public funds, because this is surely a commercial risk that must be borne by somebody. The question is, by whom? My view at the moment is that it is not appropriate for the Government to undertake to provide compensation. I am, of course, willing to be persuaded, but that is how it seems to me.

I believe that everybody concerned with agricultural progress would wish to see the maximum benefits obtained from the new techniques of spraying, and those engaged in horticulture agree entirely with that. They are certainly not seeking to hold back their farming friends provided they can get adequate security. The aim must be to prevent or mitigate harmful effects. We must not let the damage which is being done by drift, however, get out of perspective, nor, on the other hand, must we forget the serious character of the damage which can be done in individual cases. The example quoted by my hon. Friend in which there was a loss of £7,000 illustrates just how serious it can be.

In the long term, we look to research to teach us to spray with safety, and we must ensure that the results of research are made available to, and impressed upon, all those who use these sprays. Here, I would make a special appeal to farmers for a "good neighbour" policy. I am sure that when they fully realise the harm that sprays can do, especially to horticultural crops, they will make a special effort to exercise care. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend say that a close relationship exists between farmers and horticulturists. There is certainly no hostility. I was particularly glad to hear also of the meeting to which my hon. Friend referred; we want to encourage a close liaison in this way. That is the surest way to try to prevent any of these unfortunate occurrences taking place.

Even if a horticulturist can make a claim for damage, he does not, in fact, want to get to that position, because he does not want a spoiled crop in the first place. It is, therefore, prevention at which we must aim. Concerning the problem of the grower who is without redress because the source of the damage cannot be traced, we must hope that as time goes on research into spraying and its effects will help. In the meantime, I assure my hon. Friend that we will examine carefully suggestions for helping the victims of spray damage and that the points he has made tonight will be most carefully examined.

The problem is a difficult one. I wish that it was possible to see a clear answer to it. We want to encourage the use of more of these technical aids to production, but at the same time, we must seek in some way to find means of safeguarding those who may be endangered by them. My hon. Friend and I both have the same concern. I am grateful to him for raising these points and I assure him that we shall pay the very closest attention to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.