Do farmers really need bee-harming insecticides?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Do farmers really need bee-harming insecticides?” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th June 2014 17.00 UTC

6.52pm BST

Syngenta response

A spokesman for Sygenta said late today:

"Syngenta’s application for the emergency use of neonicotinoids has been done on behalf of and supported by UK farmers who expressed serious concern about their ability to grow oil seed rape this season without this technology – particularly in areas of high flea beetle pressure and in instances where they are planting crop very early.

"Existing EU regulations allow for such an application to be made and it is then up to national governments to make an assessment as to whether there is a specific danger to crop production and whether restricted products can be used safely in the environment. Both the Chemical Regulation Directorate (CRD) and the Independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) have made an assessment of the application and indicated that the criteria for authorisation has been met. It is now up to Government Ministers to decide whether or not to accept the independent scientific opinion they have been given and allow farmers to use this technology.

"In short, in line with the regulatory framework we have made an application for a scientific and independent regulatory assessment for limited and targeted use of a neonicotinoid product in two specific contexts in the UK this season. In making its assessment, we believe that the regulatory authorities will have taken into account all available studies and data as they did last year when assessing the European Commission’s proposal to restrict the technology. One area, however, where they may struggle to make an assessment will be in regard to the much reported claims this week by the IUCN taskforce. This group of scientists have made claims but not yet published all of the source material which underpins them. Accordingly, there is currently no way for anyone to fully assess the conclusions that have been drawn and widely reported in the media as ‘definitive’."

5.57pm BST

My verdict

There is, it seems, no effective way for oilseed rape farmers to combat pests on their crops this autumn.

Whether neonicotinoids should be banned is a separate issue. But the uncontrolled introduction of highly active agents at a vast scale into a chaotic system is a careless way to treat ourselves and nature. Some regulation, based on the precautionary principle, is just sensible.

The effect the ban will have on yields is unclear. If we accept neonicotinoids work, then some farmers may get lucky and avoid disease carrying aphids or flea beetle infestations. But some could fall victim to the vagaries of nature.

The EU's ban on neonicotinoids has removed a band-aid from a suppurating and seemingly incurable wound – the reliance of agriculture on chemicals that harm the environment. Should Syngenta's appeal to the government be accepted, then neonicotinoids may assist some farmers to bring in the yields for this year. But should the ban continue, what happens next year? Will we simply be having this conversation again?

Non-chemical alternatives exist that could support farmers to cost-effectively move away from their near total reliance on pesticides. But you cannot patent a parasitic wasp. So their development is stalled and apart from some small exceptions, research ignores biological pest management. This means the agriculture industry is mostly one vast train trapped on a chemical track.

Similarly, the developers of chemicals complain that EU regulation kills impetuous to develop acceptable alternatives. Gaining approval for a pesticide is rightly expensive and time consuming. This traps us all in a limbo where commercial interest guards the door to progress. A limbo in which farmers and bees are the ones likely to suffer.

Updated at 6.00pm BST

3.56pm BST

Don Pendergast, National Farmers Union plant health adviser says comparisions with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring are unfounded.

“The development and use of pesticides has changed unrecognisably from the period in time when Silent Spring was written which makes the comparison made with the report of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides a dangerous overstatement of the facts, designed to sensationalise the issue.

“Our heightened awareness of the need to manage pesticides with great care means that new chemicals commonly go through over a decade of evaluation before they are used by growers, by which time any risks has been rigorously assessed and chemicals will only be used if they are considered safe for use on all counts. Their use will continue to be monitored and reviewed on an ongoing basis.

“Growers also operate to exceptionally high standards and in the UK industry has set up voluntary schemes to improve best practice, schemes such as the voluntary initiative on pesticide ensure that over 90% of the sprayed areas is sprayed by equipment that is annually tested to ensure it is fit for purpose and minimises any environmental risks.”

3.53pm BST

Syngenta's statement that there are no alternatives to neonicotinoids for some oilseed rape farmers is "probably relatively true" says CAB International (Cabi) scientist David Moore, "in that there are not many good alternatives in a system that is bound over by the use of chemical pesticides".

He says that there are a swathe of techniques in various stages of development that could greatly reduce the need for pesticides. But these are hindered by lack of investment in a sector geared almost entirely towards chemical solutions.

Biological controls, called integrated pest management, offer farmers a less pesticide reliant approach. These techniques include the promotion of species that prey on or harm pests (such as parasitic wasps), crop rotation or the use of selective breeding to create pest resistant strains of crops (a solution mentioned earlier by Monsanto).

But the key problem for all of these alternatives is funding an lack of research emphasis. Thus, they cannot provide oilseed rape farmers with alternative solutions to this autumn's flea beetle infestation.

3.41pm BST

Green group reaction

Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Paul de Zylva said:

“It’s little surprise that Syngenta is pushing for a loophole in the European ban on its pesticides – even though it hasn’t thoroughly tested the true impact of its products on wild bees and other pollinators.

“The restrictions on these bee-harming chemicals is based on the most thorough scientific review of evidence by European and British scientists.

“And earlier this week a four year global study found that the chemicals covered by the ban are causing ‘significant damage’ not only to bees, but to other wildlife and to our soils and water.

“If David Cameron’s Government is serious about protecting Britain’s threatened bees it must reject Syngenta’s self-interested pleas, and focus on providing farmers with safer alternatives to produce and protect their crops from genuine pests.”

Buglife chief executive, Matt Shardlow, commented today:

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

For over 20 years Neonicotinoid pesticides have been pushed onto British farmers by the agrochemical industry, becoming the most abundantly used insecticides. We already know they are a high risk to bees and are polluting freshwater ecosystems. Now there is increasing evidence that they don’t actually work. The commission based selling system that rewards the middlemen is exploiting farmers; the regulators must protect them and the environment.

For analyses of the science and evidence relating to the the ability (or lack of) of neonicotinoids see the following links:-

http://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/drugs-neonicotinoids-don%E2%80%99t-work
http://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/drugs-neonicotinoids-don%E2%80%99t-work-2

A Soil Association spokesperson said:

"We aren’t surprised that they are calls for a derogation by the pesticide industry. This follows a history of exaggerated claims about the negative cost of restrictions. For example, when some pesticides shown to have a negative impact on human health were banned by the EU in 2009, it claimed that we would lose 100% of the UK carrot crop, which of course never happened. Organic farming proves that there is no need to rely on damaging systemic insecticides.

"Organic farmers have been using alternative methods of production which can also have benefits for pollinator populations (a recent meta-analysis from Oxford University showed on average, non-organic farms have 48% more species of pollinators than non-organic farms).

"There are a range of methods which farmers can use which do not require the use of neonicotinoid pesticides – such as crop rotations (as opposed to monocultures), good crop husbandry practices and a variety of measures to encourage natural predators of pest species which are widely used in farming worldwide.

"Farmers are sometimes using pesticides as insurance measures, when in fact they could save money by not using them. They usually don’t have the choice of whether to use neonicotinoids because they are applied as seed dressings. In Italy, government research showed banning neonicotinoid use on maize did not affect farmers’ profits."

Matthias Wüthrich, Greenpeace project leader for SOS-Bees.org said:

"The only way to overcome the current pollinators and industrial agriculture crisis is ecological farming which is already practiced on a large geographic scale within Europe. A growing number of European farmers, experts and eco-entrepreneurs are taking important steps towards saving the bees and agriculture. By applying ecological and bee-friendly farming methods, they are ensuring healthy food for today and tomorrow, are protecting soil, water and climate, promote biodiversity and do not contaminate the environment with chemicals or genetically engineered organisms. Policy makers need to hear these experts who live by and champion the solution – they are living proof that ecological farming in Europe works."

Updated at 4.21pm BST

3.39pm BST

Bayer's Julian Little has sent me a draft submission to the Environmental Audit Committee, which is looking at the use of neonicotinoiods. In it Little presents a photo of a field trial of crops treated with neonicotinoids beside crops au natural.

The problem here is that it is yet another example of evidence for the effectiveness of pesticides being produced by the companies that sell them. This effectively leaves us no better off because while we cannot say the research is untrue, there is no peer review process to substantiate it.

Little's submission says:

Why are there not hundreds of peer-reviewed papers proving the increase, or otherwise in yields of crops as a result of neonicotinoid seed treatments? Essentially this is because journals have no interest in publishing papers on such matters.

The problem is that with what is late stage development work, it is not fundamental ‘new’ science so is very unlikely to be sent to a peer reviewed publication. Combined with this is the loss of government funding of independent field research, essentially requiring the likes of ADAS and the Scottish Colleges to generate funds by collaborating with commercial companies in near market research.

Flea beetles attack young oilseed rape plants.
Flea beetles attack young oilseed rape plants. Photograph: Courtesy of Bayer CropScience
Flea beetles attack young oilseed rape plants.
Flea beetles attack young oilseed rape plants. Photograph: Courtesy of Bayer CropScience

Updated at 3.49pm BST

3.03pm BST

Reader SteB1's reaction to Lin Field's earlier comments:

Lin Field's comments appears to have been based on her knowledge of internal research at the pesticide companies her own profile says she has a close association with, but they keep this information to themselves. It also appears that she would have been one of those behind the government's futile attempts to oppose restrictions on neonicotinoids.

Full comment and citations here.

2.01pm BST

Alison Benjamin writes in with an interesting query. If anyone knows about the yield effects of European bans, please email me.

I co-wrote the best-selling A World without Bees which looked at all the available research on neonics in 2008. They had been banned on various seed treatments in some countries already – France banned Goucho, which contains imidacloprid on sunflower seeds (1999) and maize (2004) and I've not heard that yields went down. But bees have kept dying, because there are still lots of other neonics being used on crops in that country.

In September 2008, Italy banned for one year neonics on oiseed rape, sunflowers and sweetcorn. Don't know what the outcome was for farmers or for bees. And Slovenia also imposed a temporary ban on maize.

If anyone has information on the outcome of these bans for farmers that could hold the key. Is Syngenta citing them as an example of where yield plummeted?

1.43pm BST

Your comments

So Syngenta applies to have UK government ecotox experts review the data and make a judgment and the general opinion in the comments section is:

"We cant let the scientists review the data and come to an informed opinion because it might not agree with ours. These scientists must be stopped from reviewing the data"

Really? Thats how it is?

This is a key point, from an astute reader. Syngenta have applied, as is their right, for an exemption on behalf of the farmers that use their products. The government will now review their application. As a matter of interest, Bayer did not apply for an exemption for their own neonicotinoid product. This, a spokesman tells me, is because they did not think they would be successful.

That’s just plain wrong: "…no alternative treatment for aphids except for neonics". Pyrethroids kill aphids, although they are more costly to use because they require more frequent application because they break down in sunlight, in water and in the soil; this "disadvantage" means that they do not cause long-term contamination of soil and groundwater. And some of them are even natural plant extracts (from chrysanthemum).

No alternative!!!!

So remind us, what is the alternative to bees?

Updated at 4.21pm BST

1.35pm BST

Sense About Science published a fascinating Q&A on pesticides last year which is worth reading. This is a particularly interesting question on the neonics ban and the search for alternatives from the Biological Society of Biology's Rebecca Nesbit.

"Perhaps a neonicotinoids ban is a kneejerk reaction, but shouldn't we be more determined to find alternatives to pesticides?" Rebecca Nesbit

Professor Dave Goulson (University of Sussex): "Personally, I would not describe a ban as kneejerk – neonics have been in use for 20 years, and several hundred scientific studies of their impacts have been published over that period. EFSA spent 6 months reviewing this evidence and concluded that neonics pose an unacceptable risk when used on flowering crops or when sown at times of year when bees are active (due to dust created in sowing). A major problem is that there is almost no funding for research into biological or cultural controls (e.g. crop rotations), since these do not offer a return on investment (you cannot patent a crop rotation system). Instead industry puts huge amounts of money into developing and promoting technological solutions such as new pesticides, GM crop varieties etc. which they can then sell for decades to come."

1.07pm BST

Farmers are genuinely and understandably worried about the EU's neonicotinoid ban. Here is a question from a forum on a site managed by Monsanto. Monsanto do not produce neonicotinoids, instead they make the seeds for the crops that are then treated with chemicals made by companies such as Bayer and Syngenta. Monsanto produce a hybrid seed for oilseed rape. Approximately half of the UK crop rape crop comes from this hybrid seed. It is more virile, making it more resistant to a standard level of infestation by flea beetles. However the stronger seed comes at a higher cost.

Question:

We’re seriously wondering what we’re going to do in next autumn when we can’t use neonicotinoid seed dressings. Do you have any experience of life without them and/or advice on how best we can protect our crops from flea beetle in their absence?

- Anonymous, Farm Manager, Shropshire

Answer:

Seed for breeding trials and screening plots is almost invariably sown untreated due to the small volumes involved and short trial-turnover timings. Loss of plants due to flea beetle can and does occur. However, hybrid varieties with good establishment vigour are noticeably less affected. It is important to walk the perimeter of the entire field to look for signs of damage (‘shot holing’) and creeping areas of entire plant loss. At this point your BASIS qualified agronomist can advise on the best spray options available.

Updated at 1.48pm BST

12.59pm BST

Lin Field, from Rothamstead Research and president of the Royal Entomological Society, says the use of neonicotinoids is necessary for treating aphids and flea beetles, which are resistant to pyrethroid sprays. When asked which peer reviewed literature she would cite to recommend their effectiveness, she said she didn't have any literature to hand as she was at a conference.

"A lot of the data that deals with the efficacy [of neonicotinoids] is in the hands of the companies that market them," said Field, and these companies were often unwilling to share their findings. When asked what she based her opinions on, Field said: "I suppose I'm a bit more trusting than some people".

Field says bee behaviour is undoubtedly affected by neonicotinoids, but she is unconvinced the chemicals are responsible for the world's declining bee population.

"I don't think there was enough evidence to ban them," she says. Field co-authored a study on the link between pesticides and bee deaths, and says the evidence is inconclusive and many other factors could be involved, including viruses, mites and climate change.

Field was unwilling to comment on the report this week from a panel of 29 scientists, which conclusively linked bee declines to insecticides. The report has not been released in it entirety, she said, making it impossible to support or otherwise.

Updated at 1.04pm BST

11.48am BST

What the producers of neonics say about neonics

According to Julian Little, a spokesman for neonicotinoid producer Bayer, there are two stages in the life of oilseed rape when neonics are necessary for crop survival and no effective alternative exists.

1. Germination: Rape is troubled by flea beetles, which attack freshly germinating plants and can destroy 100% of a crop. Little says another insecticide, pyrethroid, can be used at this stage, although he says it is less effective.

2. Aphid infestation: Aphids spread disease through the crop. Little says there is no alternative treatment for aphids except for neonics.

At the flowering stage, Little says neonics are no longer effective because their toxicity has been diluted too much by the growth of the plant. However the plants are then attacked by pollen beetles, necessitating a further use of pyrethroids.

Little says the banning of neonics from the sector will lead to a greater use of pyrethroid sprays, up to 2-4 extra sprays each year. He says this means more indiscriminate insect deaths because spraying kills insects living amongst the crops, but not feeding on crops. He says a ban will likely lead to less rape production, which means less pollen producing plants, and more insecticides in the environment.

Updated at 12.08pm BST

11.47am BST

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are an insecticide commonly used on crops across the world. They are "systemic pesticides", which means they are taken up by plants, rather than remaining on the surface. This means all parts of the plant become infused with the toxin.

Systemic insecticides
Systemic insecticides

In the UK neonics have been used to treat the seeds of oilseed rape crops.

10.26am BST

Welcome to the eco audit

Pesticide manufacturer Syngenta have requested an exemption for some UK farmers from an EU ban on neonicotinoids. The request was reported yesterday, just days after an international report was released linking the chemicals to declining bee populations.

A Syngenta spokesman told the Guardian's Damian Carrington that without the use of neonicotinoids, pests (in particular flea beetles) threaten crop yields.

“Syngenta has made this emergency use application on behalf of UK farmers for a limited use of neonicotinoid seed treatment in two specific contexts where alternative approaches are not effective and a danger to production exists."

The exemption, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairsis considering, would see the treatment of oilseed rape seeds growing across 186,000 hectares of UK farmland. Environmental NGO, Buglife responded, saying:

“Flea beetles are adequately controlled by alternative pesticides. The reinstatement of bee-killing neonicotinoids on winter rape is definitely not justified. If the government approves this kneejerk and cynical application then the public are bound to question whether ministers are too close to the agrochemicals companies and too distant from the ecology that feeds us.”

But what are the alternatives? Are they effective? And what harm do they also cause? Join in today’s discussion by contributing in the comments below, tweet me or email me. If you are quoting figures or studies, please provide a link to the original source. Follow me on @karlmathiesen for updates throughout the day and later I will return with my own verdict.

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