ASSIST is a major collaborative NERC and BBSRC-funded research programme exploring methods to deliver sustainainable intensification of agriculture. Tackling one of the big challenges of our day it looks at how we can secure our future food supply for a growing population without causing unacceptable environmental damage. CEH leads the ASSIST programme in partnership with Rothamsted Research and the British Geological Survey, working with collaborators from academia, industry and the agricultural community.

This week there was some media interest in field trials now being conducted by ASSIST looking at whether flower strips planted not just in margins but in the midst of crops can reduce the need for pesticides by enhancing natural pest control throughout the field. Similar work has been pioneered by Swiss researchers. Although such work is interesting and significant in itself, interest is particularly high at the moment given the uncertainty around the status of neonicotinoid pesticides, and whether an EU ban on their use will be extended to non-flowering crops.

Professor Richard Pywell of CEH is a Programme Director on ASSIST. He also led the large-scale field trial conducted by CEH into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees. With a decision on neonics looming, Richard spoke to Farming Today this week about why it might be time for a fresh approach to pest management. Read a transcript below:

"The current suite of conventional pesticides used by farmers and growers is under increasing pressure due to a number of factors including the withdrawal of products, increasing pesticide resistance, fewer new products being developed and more stringent pesticide approval legislation. I think it is now important to review alternative options for sustainable pesticide use to maintain the effectiveness of remaining pesticide products whilst ensuring no harm to the environment."

Richard went on to talk about some of the alternative options:

"There's a range of alternatives such as breeding pest and disease-resistant varieties of crops, whether that be by conventional selection or advanced gene editing; development of sophisticated methods to diagnose and forecast outbreaks of pest and disease. Couple this with sophisticated precision-application systems. It could include the development of new bio-pesticides that are very targeted to particular pests and have no real risk of polluting the environment. But also I think there's an important role for cultural methods for pest control, including different crop rotations, bringing livestock systems even back into arable farming systems to manage things like blackgrass."

On the issue of using chemicals like pyrethroids, Richard said:

"These can potentially have adverse effects on non-target, non-pest organisms which does need to be carefully monitored. There are recent advances with precision agriculture which may actually help us better monitor where, when and how pesticides are applied. This better monitoring would allow us to detect problems much earlier and develop management systems to slow the build-up of resistance to pesticides - so monitoring is very important."

The edition of Farming Today is available to download or listen again on iPlayer until March 2nd 2018.

Additional information

ASSIST project website

Details of CEH's large-scale field trials investigating neonicotinoid effects on pollinators

Staff page of Professor Richard Pywell

Watch a short video overview of the ASSIST programme: