The Chinese have many proverbs that lend wisdom to virtually every situation. One that has been on my mind for a while is "May you live in interesting times".
It is hard to deny that, with financial turmoil causing budget pressures, the changes that will be arriving from the EU on the way we approve, use and apply control products will be severely tested. Our ability, as a sector that is responsible for maintaining the sports facilities, landscaped areas and urban environment, face some very tough challenges ahead.
Aside from the Thematic Strategy, the Water Framework Directive, and the reduction in funding to maintain much of our public facilities, there has been a slow but steady impact on the ability to manage our facilities effectively at a reasonable cost.
To put this into context it all started with EU directive 91/414. I sense that that single sentence will have switched a few of you off - but please bear with me. This directive set a new and rigorous set of standards that the active ingredients in control products had to achieve to remain in common use. The cost to the manufacturers of our control products (and by this I mean herbicides, fungicides and insecticides) due to this was substantial, as they had to re-register virtually everything. They had to be selective as to which products they put through the reappraisal process to gain the status within 91/414 needed to have a commercial life and availability to us to use. In terms of thinning out the products we had available to use, this had quite an effect.
Across the EU, as a direct result of this process, the number of active ingredients approved fell by about 50%. In many cases the products that went were old, outclassed and had lived beyond their natural life. But, a few of these were niche products that had a key role in providing solutions that made a huge difference in the time and effort it takes to manage certain situations.
Let me use a few examples. Aquatic weeds are not a problem, until you have a choked watercourse or pool that needs clearing. We used to be able to use diquat (Midstream) and dichlobenil (Midstream GSR) to prevent or treat unwanted or damaging aquatic weeds and, importantly, alien invaders that have no natural control in the British Isles. Australian Swamp Stonecrop (Crassula helmsii) being the major problem that, when submerged, has no method of treatment. It can't be physically removed, as that's how it spreads!
I'm sure everyone reading this knows about, or has used, Casaron G and its relatives under other brands. The active that did the work in this was, again, dichlobenil. It was used very widely to maintain shrub beds and keep areas of industrial sites, such as sub stations and refineries, clear - with a clear implication for safety. This, too, has now gone.
A significant problem has been placed on your local authority when it comes to controlling weeds in pavements. Now, many people would say they didn't bother anyway so why does this matter, but diuron was widely used early in the season to prevent weed growth and keep the number of treatments needed to a minimum. Now, the only product we have is glyphosate. This has obvious limitations - once you have sprayed it, weeds can germinate the following day and you have to live with a green presence. This also means that more treatment sessions are needed - at additional cost to the authority. Many authorities have no resources to fund this extra work as their budgets are fixed, and so they now have pavements that are a lot more weedy. As you can guess, this has led to dissatisfaction from the paying public, through no fault of the authority.
What I have described so far is the reduction in the tool box we have to solve real problems in managing the landscape. Let's not forget that man made environments need man made solutions to maintain them, whether they come in the form of a mower, strimmer, sprayer or garden shears. The ability to effectively manage these important niches is important.
At Languard we treat a substantial proportion of the nation's motorway network. We maintain lines of sight and a strip at the side of the hard shoulder so they are free of things that prickle, sting, snag and cause discomfort, so they can be used in the event of an emergency. The products we routinely use to do this are decades old! For this use which, granted, is a real niche, we have no other choices than to rely on what can only be described as very old chemistry. We do this as there are no other modern options.
The niches that exist within our sector of professional control product use have a threadbare cupboard of products to draw on to manage situations in a cost effective way. To highlight this it should be contrasted with sports and managed amenity turf.
Let's have a quiz. Can anyone guess how many brands of fungicide are approved for use in managed amenity turf and sports turf (golf courses and bowls greens and pitches)? Can anyone guess how many brands of herbicide there are approved for use in managed amenity turf and sports turf? Read on for the answers.
As I write this there doesn't seem to be anything on the horizon to fill the holes that now exist in what used to be the niche tool box. Shrub beds really need granular products - because, if you splash them with a liquid herbicide, they tend to get damaged. Pavements need to be kept weed free, ideally, and glyphosate needs a green target. And aquatic weed control ? Well, let's just say that, if its submerged and spreads through mechanical interference, get used to living with it.
But, being a glass half full type of guy, I see these holes not as gaps to be lamented, but as opportunities to be exploited. This is why. Market opportunity.
All the problems I have given still exist. All that has changed is what is available to control them. There is still a need for a cost effective way of managing these problems. The problem lies in getting any potential solution - a new product in a new niche - approved. The niche needs to be big enough to justify the investment of getting a new approval, and any candidate product needs to be able to fit the bill. In the new regulatory climate this will be tough. This should not, though, be a reason not to bother.
Now, the answers to the quiz. The number of fungicides approved for turf ? Forty five! There are ten active ingredients between them. The number of herbicides for turf ? One hundred and forty eight. Between them there are fourteen active ingredients. Why so many?
It could be argued that with only 3000 golf courses in the UK we could get by with slightly fewer - say, maybe, thirty fungicides and only one hundred herbicides! Compare this to the area of pavements in the UK that receive routine treatment on the grounds of health, safety, and asset management. We could do with more than one active ingredient (glyphosate) that is available in one hundred and nineteen products approved for this use!
Aside from the clear threat of resistance, a choice to extend the action of each spraying round beyond four to six weeks would be good, especially for you the paying public. The answer to why there is a disproportionate balance between what is available for turf compared to the other areas is simple - ease of approval.
The technical challenges of getting an approval in these difficult niches, such as water and pavements, are tremendous. The bar to get over for approval has been set so high it acts almost like a deterrent to even try. I would say, though, take this challenge on - and create new innovative solutions for problems that have not gone away. As we all know - where there is a need there is a market that can be exploited.
So, my point is this: would the manufacturers of the products we use please take note. And could they please apply some of their considerable expertise, resources and innovative prowess to solving real problems that wont go away rather than giving us yet another turf fungicide? Be brave, take on the challenges and invest in the tricky areas. Fortune favours the bold!
Paul Cawood is Business Development Manager of Languard Ltd.