In just the last few weeks, vast tracts of Norfolk (and no doubt lots of other places) have been transformed from bare soil into seas of yellow as the flower heads of the oilseed rape sway in the breeze and catch, reflect and enhance every sparkle of sunshine. Hayfever sufferers will take a different view but early pollinators are tucking in, scarcely able to believe their luck. Be quick little folks – it won’t last long.
The shortness of the season, its boom and bust character, is just one of the downsides of oilseed. Its range of uses, from the more traditional (cooking oil) to the new fangled (biofuel) make it a highly efficient cash crop. It grows rapidly and tends to be sown across large expanses at a high density. Great for yields but a bit of an open goal for creatures whose appetites can potentially decimate the crop. The industrial solution, neonicotinoid pesticides, are proving to be far from a simple fix. The suggestion that these chemicals may be behind catastrophic declines in the bee population has sharply polarised the debate, with chemical companies and industrial farmers arguing the threat to bees is unproven and yields must be protected by the latest technology.
More orthodox farmers are suggesting the problem lies in the intensive monocultural approach to cropping favoured by agri-business. Smaller fields, with more diverse cropping and companion planting to encourage natural patterns of population balance among insects will, they say, reap greater rewards in the long run. If, as seems likely, bees are suffering the harmful effects of agri-chemicals, a change will need to occur. Bees are a vital component in the global ecosystem and we’d lose a lot more than just honey without them.
Although such dispiriting thoughts do clang around in the back of my mind whenever I see oilseed (particularly in ludicrously large fields), it is a cheering sight. I’ve always loved the colour yellow and it complements the natural green tendency of the wider environment to a degree that must go beyond my simple football affilliations. This evening, with the sky full of drama and late sun after a day of sudden showers, the oilseed flowers were luminous, the fields breathtaking as a spectacle. They demanded to be photographed so, camera-less, I did the best I could with my phone. Call me shallow but ultimately I’ve got slightly more time for a contentious crop if it manages to look as gorgeous as this.
I must admit I had kind of missed it – the EU has now banned neonicotinoids so the oilseed now in flower is the first crop to be grown without them in recent times. Industrial sources are suggesting that the incidence of flea beetle is consequently four times what it was last year and this is making the plant more vulnerable to fungal disease. The solution, apparently, is to double dose with fungicides which can be purchased from, er, the very same companies that are bemoaning their lost neonicotinoid revenue. Lets hear it for Bayer, Syngenta and BASF – winners whichever way the dice fall.