Matt Shardlow is the Chief Executive of the Invertebrate Conservation Trust Buglife. Buglife is the only organisation in Europe committed to saving all invertebrates; the charity has twenty four members of staff and a growing portfolio of conservation projects. The charity’s priorities include the sustainable management of brownfield sites; saving endangered Biodiversity Action Plan Priority species; putting bees and flowers back into the countryside; saving key sites for bugs from destruction, and improving the health of freshwater ecosystems. Matt is chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) Legal Strategy Group and is a Country Diary columnist in the Guardian newspaper. Before leaving to set up Buglife in 2002 he was at the RSPB.
“Where the bee sucks,
in a cowslip’s bell lie,
in fields purple with lavender,
yellow with rape,
and on the sunflower’s up turned face;”
From Ariel, by Carol Ann Duffy, 2011
There is a growing pile of research papers showing that neonicotinoids cause injury to bees; reducing locomotion, feeding and reproduction profoundly. In the face of this Defra and its advisors have proffered increasingly flimsy reasons why what happens in laboratories may not happen in the field.
However, swift EU action now has the potential to resolve this chronic threat to our pollinators.
Unfortunately, despite the UK Government’s complacency on the issue up until now, Owen Paterson is reported to be about to take firm action to try to block EU measures designed to stop our pollinators from tumbling out of the skies.
The turning point?
The publication of the European Food Safety Authority’s new risk assessments for Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thamiethoxam was a watershed. They determined a high risk to honeybees from exposure via dust drift when the seeds are planted, and via residues in nectar and/or pollen. In addition Thamiethoxam was also identified as high risk for exposure via guttation fluid (sap that comes out of the leaves of plants at night and can be sipped by insects).
The report also concluded that “the risk assessment for pollinators other than honey bee…. could not be finalised on the basis of the available information.”
In response the European Commission has followed the letter of the law and proposed a new piece of legislation that would introduce a partial ban on the three neonicotinoids. They could no longer be used on crops that are ‘attractive to bees’; they could not be sown during the summer, to avoid dust clouds poisoning flying bees; and garden use would be stopped. This would start on 1 July 2013, to be reviewed after two years.
While a very significant step in the right direction, this partial ban does not address risks to pollinators from drinking guttation fluid from the leaves of treated plants, which will usually be fatal; it does not address concerns about the effects of neonicotinoids on soil and aquatic life; nor does it ensure that concentrations do not build up in soils and pollute subsequent flowering crops. And of course there are two newer generation neonicotinoids – Acetamiprid and Thiacloprid that are not covered by these bans and may be subject to a subsequent risk assessment by the EFSA.
The UK is still not convinced!
It seems that the UK, Germany and Spain may vote against the ban on 25th February, if they do so then they only need to persuade one or two smaller countries to abstain for the vote will be lost and the EU ban will be in jeopardy.
Although wild pollinators will still be exposed to some risks if the partial ban is in place, the level of exposure will be very significantly reduced – this partial ban would be a great step forward.
Buglife, Soil Association, Client Earth, Pesticides Action Network, Friends of the Earth, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Butterfly Conservation, Woodland Trust, and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust are all working together to try to persuade the UK to see sense and vote for the ban.
We need your help, urgently.
Please write to your MP this week urging them to persuade Owen Paterson to vote YES to the ban – template here – http://www.buglife.org.uk/conservation/campaigns/Neonicotinoids+minister+letter
Together we can make the neonicotinoid threat fly away.
I know from previous airings of this issue on this blog that the highly informed and land management minded readership will have more questions about this – here is my attempt to answer them.
Don’t the concerns stem from a little accident in Germany a few years ago?
There was an ecological disaster in Germany on one weekend in May 2008. Dozens and dozens of beekeepers throughout the Rhine valley watched their colonies suffer c.60% devastation – who knows how many wild pollinators died! Bayer was quick to claim that the Clothianidin had not been properly attached to the seeds and that this was a mistake that could never happen again. However, not all bee-keepers are convinced, many believe that the concentrations on the seeds had been boosted to deal with an infestation of root worm and that due to weather conditions all farmers planted on the same weekend rather than spread out over a couple of weeks. They believe that it was this coincidence that created an observable event across a large area. This event may not have been noticed if it had been spread out over a longer period.
Whatever really happened on that weekend in Germany, we do know that the dust produced when treated seeds are planted does kill bees and still does so despite the much promoted new deflectors that were supposed to resolve the problem – two scientific papers are convincing on this point.
The scientific evidence regarding what happens to honeybees and bumblebees when exposed to ‘field levels’ of the chemicals in pollen and nectar is also convincing, they get very ill, catch diseases and are unable to reproduce effectively.
Why is there controversy?
Multinational pesticide companies with their single-minded focus on increasing their own profits and share dividends are a strong single issue lobby.
They have millions of pounds to spend to convince decision makers that pesticides are good and that the science is controversial. The UK media likes controversy and is not confident with science, so it is quite easy to spread the notion that the science is uncertain and that more increasingly complex (and unfeasible) scientific tests are required before action can be taken.
Why should we conserve wild pollinators?
Actually I hope not many of you ask this, if you do then it may be enough to say that they are worth at least £510 million/yr to British agriculture and most wildflowers would die out without them.
Why in that case, you may ask, is their health not a higher priority? The pesticide companies are getting a firm grip on the input side of farming. Most farmers consult an agronomist about what crops to plant and what pesticides to use, the agronomist is usually working for the pesticide companies on a commission basis.
Neonicotinoid seed treatments enable the pesticide companies to control not just which chemicals the farmer purchases, but also which seeds are bought, which other chemicals used, etc. – they are well on the way to capturing the input market.
It is no coincidence that wild pollinators do not pay commission to agronomists and also feature much less prominently in their advice. When farmers and the public underestimate the value of wild pollinators then the political system will also be behind the curve.
Should we apply the Precautionary Principle?
The precautionary principle is well established in plant protection products legislation; because waiting until after the environment has been gravely damaged before taking action is not a sensible response.
Given that 94% of the scientific research published in the last three years has indicated a higher environmental risk than previously declared, and that Neonicotinoids were first used 15 years ago it is arguably no longer precautionary action!
Pesticides – are they always necessary?
I have been surprised by how little published information there is about agricultural pests and their impact.
Take the Pollen beetle for instance: a little black beetle that feeds on pollen and is targeted by neonicotinoid pesticide manufacturers. One might think there would be plenty of science showing the damage the species was causing. Not a bit of it, instead one finds a paper that shows that Oil Seed Rape is more than capable of simply replacing buds damaged by Pollen beetles – yield is not reduced.
Why then is there an industry established to destroy the Pollen beetle, how did it move from the category of ‘pollinator’ to ‘pest’? The story goes that one year, in the not too distant past, in Germany, there were exceptional numbers of Pollen beetles, enough to mean that the local Oil Seed Rape was unable to produce enough replacement buds and yield was reduced. A pesticide was developed to be active in the flowers and was marketed on the basis of being a prophylactic insurance. Many agronomists advise its use because they are paid to do so and farmers often follow their agronomist’s advice.
Basically, the UK has a ‘reach for the poison’ approach to crop management, we under-use crop rotation and natural predators. The principles of Integrated Pest Management are not compatible with the use of systemic pesticides. In addition, the presence of neonicotinoids in 1.2 million hectares of UK crops for the whole growing season, every year, is a recipe for resistance.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment shows that the introduction of neonicotinoids to Oil Seed Rape cultivation did not significantly increase UK yields. Also we have seen neonicotinoid product authorisation documents that include studies where the control plot had higher yields than the insecticide treatment plot.
Of course there are some pests that will, unless treated, reduce yields. Pest control is best done by informed and aware farmers monitoring the levels of pests in their crops and applying the most specific solution when a developing problem is detected.
Will we be able to feed ourselves in a post–neonicotinoid agricultural system?
A retraction of neonicotinoids is likely to result in a range of farming practice responses. Because yet another group of miracle chemicals has been revealed to be environmentally damaging, some farmers may decide now is the time to go organic! Older pesticides such as pyrethroids will be used In many fields, in some no insecticide will be necessary, in others a different crop will be grown, and in the longer term new techniques and chemicals will no doubt be developed.
It is legitimate to ask if pyrethroids, the most likely direct replacement, are more or less damaging than neonicotinoids, but an empirical answer is not available. Pyrethroids are sprayed so are likely to be present in the air and crop for a shorter period than systemic neonicotinoids, which are present for the full life of the crop, neonicotinoids are more persistent in soil (pyrethroids < 100 days, neonicotinoids up to 6900 days), and, therefore, have a greater potential to accumulate in the environment. Neonicotinoids are about 200x more toxic to bees on an acute oral basis, although predicting exactly what happens in the field at different concentrations of active ingredient is very difficult indeed. While pyrethroids are subject to spray drift, neonicotinoids create toxic dust clouds when planted. Pyrethroids are thought to be more toxic to aquatic organisms than the neonicotinoids, requiring buffer zones.
There are other pesticides that could be used as alternatives, including biopesticides (biological control).
The potential for new and innovative products to directly replace neonicotinoids was recognised by Defra in its written evidence to the on-going House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into neonicotinoids.
Crucially, there have been no reports of drops in yields in countries where neonicotinoids have been banned.
In the 1960s it became morally unacceptable to use pesticides that destroyed wild bird populations (which incidentally do not help us to feed ourselves) understandably it is now becoming morally unacceptable to destroy populations of helpful pollinators.
Farming was productive before neonicotinoids and will be productive when they are withdrawn.
This case raises serious doubts about the lack of transparency of the authorisation process, the weak quality and narrow breadth of the studies done before toxins are authorised, and the time it takes the regulators to accept new information.
There should be fierce competition to produce and sell the most effective and environmentally benign pesticides. Instead the information that would enable such competition is kept secret by pacts between pesticide companies and national governments.
However, the immediate problem is that the UK may vote against the EC proposal and then there may be no action at all to restrict risky uses of neonicotinoids – please help http://www.buglife.org.uk/conservation/campaigns/Neonicotinoids+minister+letter.