Sam Burcher dot com

Sam Burcher, news views and bits inbetween......
Total Site Hits

15th March 2013

bee cotheleIn the summer of 1994 as the sunflowers opened and the French countryside turned golden, France’s honey bee population collapsed. Thousands of hives were lost and French beekeepers saw their livelihoods evaporate. 1994 was the first year that a new class of insecticide – neonicotinoids – was widely used in France.

Since then, bee populations around the world have continued to decline at an alarming rate, just as the use of these new insecticides have exploded. Neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticides in the world, sales globally make the pesticide manufacturers billions of dollars.

Today, following fierce lobbying and smear tactics by the pesticide manufacturers, EU Member States failed to reach a qualified majority in voting either for or against the proposal to suspend the use of three neonicotinoids in Europe.  The suspension would only have been partial – applying to crops that are specifically attractive to bees – and  temporary - lasting for just two years - but it would have been a step in the right direction. Had the EU member States voted to restrict the use of neonicotinoids, it would have signified a landmark decision by European Governments to stand up for nature and biodiversity.

The UK government abstained in the vote, along with Germany, whilst France voted in favour of the proposal. In spite of a raft of recent scientific studies demonstrating that these pesticides can cause serious harm to pollinators, Defra has steadfastly refused to act. Just a few months ago, Defra issued a review of the science which conceded that risks had not been adequately assessed but proposed to do absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, the EU’s own Food Safety Agency – with access to exactly the same studies as Defra – concluded that these pesticides were so risky that they should not be used on flowering crops like oil seed rape that are attractive to bees and other pollinators. EFSA also flagged up huge gaps in the data used to assess these chemicals and exposed flaws in the testing regime.

Neonicotinoids work differently from other insecticides in that they are mainly applied to seeds and the chemical is taken up by the plant as it grows. The toxin is expressed throughout all of the plant’s tissues poisoning pests which feed on it. Unfortunately for bees and other wild pollinators, the pesticide also makes its way into pollen and nectar.

Every time a bee comes into contact with contaminated pollen it receives a dose of neurotoxin hundreds of times more toxic than most other insecticides on the market. While these doses are tiny, and unlikely to kill the bees outright, repeated doses can affect bee behaviour and ability to support the colony. For example bees exposed to neonicotinoids are less effective at foraging and finding their way back to the hive. What’s more, they tend to be more susceptible to diseases and infections. Scientists believe that taken together, these ‘sub-lethal’ effects can be catastrophic and push bee colonies over the edge to fail.

Just as it did fifty years ago when Rachel Carson presented scientific evidence of the damage of DDT, some in the pesticide industry have tried to sow confusion and uncertainty.  Claiming variously that the scientific studies do not use real life dosages – untrue -, that EFSA had been ‘nobbled’ and even bizarrely as one industry rep tried to claim in parliamentary inquiry – that his company did not sell neonicotinoids in the UK when his company is the world’s largest manufacturer of the chemicals.

They have also resorted to scaremonger tactics warning of huge economic losses if these substances are banned. But the reality is that farmers can – and do – grow crops perfectly well without them. The three neonicotinoids in question are mainly used as ‘insurance’ against pest attacks that might not even materialise.  After France took steps to ban imidacloprid on sunflowers, it was found that it was being used in areas where the risk of pest attack was ‘close to zero’. What is more, farmers in countries like France where these substances have been banned, have continued to grow crops profitably and there have been no reports of drops in yield.

Perhaps the strongest indication though is that the UK’s biggest farmer, the Co-op supports the EC proposal. The Co-op will have carefully assessed the impact of the restrictions on its ability to grow food. If they think it is possible – and profitable – to do without neonics, then other farmers should be able to do so too.

But why has Defra come out so firmly in favour of the pesticide manufacturers? There are very few British jobs involved in the production and distribution of these chemicals, and experience from other countries is that the impact on productivity will be negligible. The answer may lie in the way the UK has ducked its responsibilities on pesticides over decades. Time and again successive governments have shied away from imposing strict regulations on powerful agribusiness in favour of weak voluntary initiatives.

The failure to address the threats to our bees and pollinators is the latest in a long line of regulatory failures concerning pesticides – from the scandal of sheep farmers poisoned by organophosphates to the continued pollution of our rivers and ongoing decline in farmland birds. Defra seems pathologically opposed to serious action to tackle pesticide problems.

The only solution is to support farmers to adopt more sustainable pest control methods. Two weeks ago, Defra issued its much delayed pesticides National Action Plan (NAP) which was supposed to set out its vision for achieving this goal. The NAP is a requirement of new EU pesticide legislation which calls on each member state to set out – among other things – how it plans to reduce reliance on chemical pesticides and protect human health and the environment from them.

But true to form, the UK plan is a missed opportunity. While other countries have included targets for reducing pesticide use, or innovative new programmes to promote non-chemical alternatives, the UK wants to stick with business as usual and proposes virtually nothing new.

Study after study has shown that it is possible to achieve massive reductions in pesticide use in the UK with little or no impact on yields. This would deliver huge environmental and health benefits but would require farmers to change the way they grow crops. They would need to understand their crops more and adopt practices like new crop rotations, companion planting and encouraging natural predators.  Ultimately this switch from chemical-intensive to knowledge-intensive agriculture will benefit farmers and create jobs, but farmers will need time, support and training to make the transition.

Unfortunately Defra is happier to support a system that benefits big agribusiness rather than help farmers switch to a more sustainable form of agriculture. The UK Government’s abstention in today’s vote contributed to a missed opportunity for real action to be taken to protect bees. We are disappointed that EU member States failed to take a stand to protect the environment and food security, and will continue to campaign for action against these deadly pesticides.

Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF, and Keith Tyrell, Director of PAN UK