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The Pesticide Problem

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There’s been a lot of talk about the plight of the bees this year, particularly relating to pesticides, so we thought we’d to take a look at the beeconomics behind the buzz (10 punpoints).

The decline in global honeybee populations has been well documented in the last 10-15 years. Honeybees and other wild pollinators have become subject to a range of debilitating factors including starvation/poor nutrition, loss of habitat, invasive species, disease and – causing quite a commotion in the last few months – there is growing evidence pointing to the impact of a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) on bee behaviour, productivity and mortality. Neonics are a systemic pesticide, which means they are added to crops as a seed treatment and grow with the plant to gain maximum coverage, including within its pollen and nectar.

Last year, two key studies were published in the journal Science, one found that nonlethal exposure to the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam adversely affected the homing ability of honeybees causing high mortality, whilst another discovered that bumble-bee colonies exposed to field-realistic levels of imidacloprid (another neonicotinoid) suffered an 85% reduction in the production of new queens. Last month, a study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology found that bees exposed to imidacloprid were less likely to form a long-term memory – pretty important if you need to find your way back to a good source of nectar or pollen and communicate its location to your fellow workers. Research published in Nature last month suggested that exposure to the neonicotinoids imidacloprid and clothianidin is damaging honeybees’ brains. Ouch.

Of course, all this isn’t just bad news for the bees and honey-lovers, it’s a problem for all of us – approximately one third of global crop production relies on animal pollinators. The contribution of pollinators to the global economy is estimated at €153bn. A report released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in January prompted the European Commission to call for a two-year suspension of the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) on crops attractive to pollinators. The proposed ban failed to gain a majority last month. Germany – where Bayer CropScience, the largest neonicotinoid producer is based – and the UK both abstained from the vote.

In a speech to the National Farmers Union in February, UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said “I have asked the Commission to consider all the evidence and to wait for the results of our field trials, rather than rushing to a decision based on lab tests alone.” Unfortunately, field trials conducted by The Food and Environment Agency (FERA – Defra’s research wing) were compromised due to residues of neonics being found in pollen and nectar at the control site as well as other ‘fundamental flaws.’ Herein lies the problem: Paterson argues that more field-based evidence is required before the UK can support a ban, yet it is unlikely this evidence will be forthcoming due to the difficulty of finding appropriate control sites completely free of the insecticides in question.

MPs of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) released a report last month criticising the government’s approach stating that “where the available scientific evidence is either incomplete or contradictory, Defra must apply the precautionary principle rather than maintaining the status quo while waiting for further evidence.” The EAC argues that neonics are not essential to UK agriculture (with the possible exception of oilseed rape) whereas pollinators provide a valuable service and are crucial to maintaining biodiversity in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta (another neonicotinoid manufacturer), have strongly defended their products and dismissed lab-based studies as unrepresentative of conditions in the field, warning that any “disproportionate action” would have “an enormous economic impact throughout the whole food-chain.” The agrochemical industry have produced their own studies on the safety of neonics (these are a requirement prior to product registration with the EC) but are unable to release them into the public domain for ‘commercial reasons’. A Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture report (financed by Bayer and Syngenta) has estimated that if neonics were no longer available, the impact on the EU economy could be up to €4.5bn. The report and its dedicated website are at best misleading. The headline figures are calculated with the assumption that all neonics in any application were to be taken off the shelf. However, the proposed ban specifically excludes winter cereals and crops not attractive to bees, such as sugar beet.

Ironically, given its mandate, the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) has also come out against the ban arguing that it “does not wish to see any action taken that may in itself cause damage to pollinators for example by the inevitable re-adoption by farmers of older superseded and more hazardous chemical agents being re-employed in crop protection.” This is not the first time the BBKA has surprised its members by adopting what appears to be a counter-intuitive policy. In 2009 the organisation endorsed four Bayer insecticides in return for donations without consulting its membership. The EAC report dismissed concerns that a ban would necessarily lead to re-adoption of potentially more harmful substances arguing this could be prevented by moving away from excessive use of chemical pesticides and utilising integrated pest-management techniques.

A YouGov poll in February revealed that almost three-quarters of the UK public were in favour of the proposed ban. Over 2.5 million people have signed an Avaaz petition calling for the EU to “Ban Bee Poison.” Thirteen member states were in favour of the ban at the last vote. France and Italy have already implemented suspensions of some neonicotinoids. If the European Commission takes the decision to the appeals committee and there is no clear majority once again, it has the power to enforce the ban under its own authority.

But what’s the story in Brazil? (we hear you cry). Well, last year the Brazilian environment agency commissioned new studies into the residue content of imidacloprid and two other insecticides on seven selected crops: cotton, coffee, sugar cane, citrus, melons, corn and soybeans as well as semi-field-based investigations into the corresponding impact on bees. The results are yet to come in. One positive to highlight is that Brazil is so large that there are still vast swathes of land that have not been impacted by agriculture, allowing the country to maintain its position as the world leader in organic honey production.

Even if the evidence pointing the finger at neonics is not entirely conclusive, it is substantial enough to cause concern. Bees are already having a tough time of it in Europe and any action that can serve to aid their survival has to be more important than any short-term economic impact. The long-term environmental and economic cost of losing our pollinators far outweighs any losses incurred through implementing this ban.

Is the pesticide problem bugging you too? (2 punpoints) Here’s a link to the Avaaz petition.