COUNTRYSIDE ISSUES WITH 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.
RESTRICTIONS ON USE
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.”
ROUNDUP GO AHEAD
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