LICENCE TO KILL
The Scottish Government has the power to ban the harmful pesticides that are killing our bee population and threatening Scotland’s agricultural viability – so why won’t they act?
Pesticides are killing bees and could prove lethal to man
They may be among the smallest of insects, but bees play a huge role in the production of the food we eat and are vital to the future of our planet. The Nobel prize-winning writer Maurice Maeterlinck, in his 1901 book The Life of the Bee, warned: ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.’
By pollinating tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, bees contribute an estimated £691m a year to the UK economy. However, the buzz-filled sound of a lazy summer is becoming a thing of the past. Our government at Holyrood needs to take urgent action to stem the rapid decline of Scotland’s bee populations.
Since the 1930s, the UK has lost an esti-
Above: Wildflowers, the basis of complex food chains, rely on bee pollination to produce seeds for reproduction.
mated 97% of flower-rich grassland, the main food source for bees. If bees disappear, so do a lot of other insects, birds and mammals. It is no accident that bee populations started to decline with the introduction in the mid-1990s of neonicotinoid pesticides, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world.
Neonics, as they are called, are used to coat seeds and are water soluble. But only around 5% of the active ingredient is taken up systemically by plants, the rest is dispersed into the wider environment. This means that not only bees but other insects, wild flowers, streams and hedges – in fact the whole farmed environment – are contaminated with neurotoxins. While these are thought to be less toxic to mammals
and vertebrates, no-one really knows the precise long-term effects of exposure. However, it’s thought that neurotoxins could contribute to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Since the mid-2000s numerous reputable studies have raised concerns about the mass poisoning of honeybees and bumblebees by neonics. The effect of these pesticides on bees is catastrophic because of what it does to the insect’s brain. Bees have to be clever to survive, they navigate long distances and can’t afford to get lost or disorientated – without memory, the bees are lost and the colony dies. To put things in perspective, one teaspoon of clothianidin is enough to kill one and a quarter billion honey bees.
An assessment conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, when used on certain flower crops, pose a ‘high risk’ to honey bees. At the time the EFSA was unable to draw any conclusions about the risk to wild bees due to the lack of available evidence. This in itself raises questions as to how thoroughly pesticides are tested before they are licensed for use.
Despite protests from the UK, in 2013 the European Union issued a ban on using Syngenta’s t hiamethoxam and Bayer’s clothianidin and imidacloprid on flowering plants such as oilseed rape. To its disgrace, the UK government successfully lobbied the EU to temporarily lift the ban for 120 days in July 2015 in response to pressure from the farming lobby. Farmers were worried about the cabbage flea beetle affecting their crop yields.
However, during this period there was no difference in the number of pests or the crop yields between treated and untreated fields of oilseed rape. Since the EU ban, yields have been up. So why keep using expensive, harmful pesticides? Despite the EU moratorium, the annual use of these pesticides in the UK continues to rise, mainly because they are still applied to winter wheat cereals, the country’s largest crop. Under pressure from farmers and the agrochemical industry, the EFSA decided to re-assess the risk level of the banned chemicals.
This review, due to be published in January, has been postponed until September. In the meantime, because of concerns that the EFSA could be compromised, Greenpeace commis- sioned and funded an independent study from Sussex university, The Environmental Risks of Neonicotinoid Pesticides: a Review of the Evidence Post-2013. Researchers reported that all previous risk areas identified remained unchanged, apart from two which were found to face increased risk: the risk of exposure from, and uptake of, neonicotinoids in non-crop plants, and the sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on wild bees.
On the back of their own report, Friends of the Earth has called on the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to extend the EU ban to wheat crops as well as flowering crops. They found that the use of clothianidin on wheat also threatened bees, birds, butterflies and other wildlife, including aquatic invertebrates.
We live in a time where people are becoming more conscious about what they eat; buying organic and locally-produced food, some of it from the growing number of farmers’ markets. This movement is seen as a largely middle-class preserve but everyone should have access to ethically-produced food. It will mean having to pay more, but the 10% of income we spend on food as a proportion of income is a fraction of the 50% it was 100 years ago. The question is, can we afford not to when it comes to our health and that of the planet?
The Scottish Government needs to take steps to remove all harmful pesticides from the food chain. It already has authority over pesticides but hasn’t a statutory body to use it. Leaving the EU and losing the EFSA means Scotland would need to set up an EFSA equivalent. However, the EU could continue to indirectly dictate how our farmers produce food by insisting it meets certain regulations if it is exported to Europe.
All governments need to get rid of pesticides, especially as they don’t seem to be doing their job. A study across the US found that the millions of tonnes of neonics applied to the soya crop each year had no benefit whatsoever. Getting rid of pesticides goes beyond protecting wildlife and producing healthy food. As agriculture is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, greater than power generation, doing things differently would be good for the planet.
We are running out of time and if Maeterlinck is right, the clock is already ticking.
‘The effect of these pesticides on bees is catastrophic because of what it does to the insect’s brain’