Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - JOHN CRAVEN

Why some pes­ti­cides may be caus­ing more prob­lems than they solve.

“A lead­ing French sci­en­tish con­firmed to me that neon­ics posed a threat to bees”

In case you have never heard of neon­i­coti­noids (or neon­ics for short), they are the world’s most widely used in­sec­ti­cides, de­ployed on crops to kill bugs and be­lieved by many farm­ers to be per­fectly safe. Yet many sci­en­tists, con­ser­va­tion­ists and politi­cians want them banned, blam­ing neon­ics for wip­ing out mil­lions of honey bees and caus­ing mi­gra­tory birds to lose their way.

It is an is­sue that gives added fo­cus to the in­dus­trial-scale use of chem­i­cals in agri­cul­ture. Are they re­ally needed at such lev­els to feed the world? Could farm­ers dras­ti­cally slow down what’s been called “the pes­ti­cides tread­mill” and still have healthy crops and healthy bees? For many ex­perts, the an­swer to that first ques­tion is No, and to the sec­ond one, Yes.


Five years ago, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion re­stricted the use of three of the most com­mon neon­ics and since then, there have been dif­fer­ing re­ports on how yields have been af­fected. The UK Gov­ern­ment ob­jected at the time but now, in a com­plete change of heart, En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Michael Gove says he will sup­port a wider ban. “The weight of ev­i­dence now shows that the risks neon­i­coti­noids pose to our en­vi­ron­ment – par­tic­u­larly to the bees and other pol­li­na­tors that play such a key part in our £100bn food in­dus­try – is greater than pre­vi­ously un­der­stood,” he said. “As is al­ways the case, a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing en­vi­ron­ment is ul­ti­mately bad eco­nomic news as well.”

Bri­tain’s farm­ing union dis­agrees. “We deeply re­gret the Gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion as we don’t be­lieve the ev­i­dence jus­ti­fies this abrupt change of pol­icy,” said a spokesman for the NFU.

Europe’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers seem to be dither­ing over a blan­ket ban. When they dis­cussed it late last year, the de­ci­sion was de­ferred and con­ser­va­tion­ists ex­pressed re­gret. “Our one hope now is that a full ban on the three worst neon­ics, in­clud­ing their use in green­houses, will be put in place be­fore crops are sown in au­tumn this year,” says Matt Shard­low , chief ex­ec­u­tive of char­ity Buglife.

I first came across neon­ics in 2009 when in­ves­ti­gat­ing them for the Coun­try­file pro­gramme. Bee­keep­ers were re­port­ing un­ex­plained mass deaths in their hives. A lead­ing French sci­en­tist told me that the in­sec­ti­cides posed a threat to bees – although the man­u­fac­turer, Bayer, de­nied this – and our re­port went on to win an award.

Bri­tain’s con­tam­i­nated rivers are also a con­cern. And, when sci­en­tists in Canada fed small amounts of neon­ics to mi­grat­ing white-crowned spar­rows, the birds be­came weak and stopped eat­ing. “They be­came lost,” says Pro­fes­sor Christy Mor­ris­sey, who points out that although the birds re­cov­ered two weeks later, if they ar­rive at their breed­ing grounds late and in poor con­di­tion, it can damage pop­u­la­tion num­bers.

The RSPB’s Martin Harper told me: “This re­search adds to the grow­ing ev­i­dence that neon­ics may carry un­fore­seen risks not only to pol­li­nat­ing in­sects but to other species such as birds.”


As ev­ery­one awaits Europe’s ver­dict on neon­ics, the weed­killer glyphosate, also known as Roundup, has been given the go-ahead for an­other five years. This is de­spite 1.3 mil­lion Euro­peans sign­ing a pe­ti­tion for it to be banned, claim­ing it is a threat to health. The mak­ers, Mon­santo, and farm­ers in­sist it is safe. Dif­fer­ent plant treat­ment – but a now-fa­mil­iar story.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists warn that neon­ics are killing pol­li­na­tors such as honey bees – and now some politi­cians agree, too

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