The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - Visit asko­r­ Email your gar­den­ing queries to da@asko­r­

WE all fall for the oc­ca­sional im­pulse buy when vis­it­ing the gar­den cen­tre, but do we know any­thing about the plants we’re buy­ing? Flow­ers, en­tic­ingly dis­played near the tills, may have been drenched by in­sec­ti­cides and others might even be ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied cul­ti­vars.

It is widely be­lieved that the EU ban on GM flow­er­ing crops had neu­tralised the per­ceived dan­gers of GM plants, but this isn’t true. In April, the Fin­nish Food Safety Au­thor­ity iden­ti­fied or­ange petu­nias bred us­ing GM meth­ods. The plant ma­te­rial orig­i­nated in the Nether­lands and Ger­many. Eight or­ange petu­nia cul­ti­vars were im­me­di­ately with­drawn in the UK and thou­sands of plants de­stroyed. The mail or­der firm Mr Fothergill was hor­ri­fied on dis­cov­er­ing that African Sun­set, which it had been sell­ing since 2013, was a GM cul­ti­var. The ex­is­tence of other ex­am­ples can­not be dis­counted.

What a carry-on. All sense of pro­por­tion flies out the win­dow when GM is men­tioned. Yes, as an or­ganic gar­dener, I’m an unashamed heretic. I’ve been ar­gu­ing for years that GM is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring process and I’m de­lighted sci­en­tists are now able to use it in plant breed­ing. Of course I de­plore many of the ways GM has been used by multi­na­tion­als, but it’s a method, not a prin­ci­ple. Con­trolled and mon­i­tored, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion can achieve ex­cel­lent re­sults much more quickly than con­ven­tional breed­ing meth­ods ever could.

It’s my view that the use of sys­temic pes­ti­cides should be much more wor­ri­some for any­one with an eth­i­cal ap­proach to gar­den­ing. There’s over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence that neon­i­coti­noids, a group of sys­temic pes­ti­cides, dam­age in­sects in­clud­ing bees.

Last year, Richard Gill, of Im­pe­rial Col­lege, Lon­don, re­ported on a long-term field study con­ducted at Sil­wood Park, near Read­ing. He found that bees ex­posed to the neon­i­coti­noid cloth­i­an­i­din were not killed, but af­ter five weeks they started for­ag­ing less ef­fec­tively and the hives pro­duced fewer young queens. As a re­sult, the over­all bee pop­u­la­tion de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly.

For some years, Pro­fes­sor David Goul­son of Sus­sex Univer­sity has been con­cerned about the ef­fects of neon­i­coti­noids and the risk gar­den­ers could run when buy­ing plants treated with these pes­ti­cides. In June, he blogged: “If I’m buy­ing plants to en­cour­age wildlife, I don’t want the lin­ger­ing worry that I might be ac­ci­den­tally poi­son­ing my bees, hov­er­flies and but­ter­flies. I don’t use any pes­ti­cides in my gar­den – I sim­ply don’t need them. I don’t want to bring them in ac­ci­den­tally.”

Goul­son was es­pe­cially wor­ried about the “per­fect for pol­li­na­tors” tag you see on plant la­bels. The Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety au­tho­rises re­tail­ers to use the term for species that at­tract bees and other pol­li­nat­ing in­sects. Goul­son recog­nises that the term is only cor­rect if a plant is grown with­out the use of sys­temic pes­ti­cides.

His re­searchers tested how many plants la­belled “per­fect for pol­li­na­tors” were for sale in a num­ber of gar­den cen­tres, su­per­mar­kets and DIY out­lets con­tained neon­i­coti­noids. They found that only two of the 29 plant spec­i­mens were pes­ti­cide­free. Seventy per­cent of them con­tained neon­i­coti­noids, 76% had at least one chem­i­cal, 38% had two or more and one heather boasted an im­pres­sive cock­tail of five in­sec­ti­cides and five fungi­cides. The re­port prompted re­sponses from two of the out­lets: B&Q said it will cease sell­ing pol­li­na­tor-friendly plants con­tain­ing sys­temic pes­ti­cides from next Fe­bru­ary, while Aldi had stopped sell­ing them a month af­ter the sam­ples had been taken.

Bees are vul­ner­a­ble to the dam­age caused by sys­temic pes­ti­cides

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