Major study finds correlation between neonicotinoids and bee colony losses

Farmers Guardian Insight – Monday 21st August

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has just published the first significant field study on the impact of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid on UK honeybee populations. It finds a link – though not a causal one – between the use of the chemical in oilseed rape and the decline of bee colonies across England and Wales. It constitutes the first clear evidence that neonicotinoids are a contributor to colony collapse.

The study, which has been praised by other scientists for its balance, also sheds light on other points that have been lively in the debate on how necessary these chemicals are. It reveals a lack of consistency in the relationship between neonic use and crop yields – the chemical sometimes increases crop yields but not always and weather may be a factor in this. The research also questions the cost effectiveness of the chemicals for farmers. Use of neonicotinoids increased dramatically in the first decade of the century, but perhaps the lack of clear correlation between neonic use and crop yields will lead farmers to think more carefully about its application? However, the research also found that farmers used fewer foliar sprays on crops treated with neonicotinoids.

Defra’s approach in the study, which looks at both the benefits and problems of neonicotinoid use, is a step towards a better true cost accounting of pesticide use. While long-term studies are needed to more fully understand the link between neonics and bee deaths, the evidence the study offers acknowledges that the impact of the chemicals on pollinators is real and that their use should be considered in relation to this. It strengthens the case for taking a strong precautionary approach – the EU moratorium on their application to crops where bees forage in large numbers is sound and should be adhered to by all European governments.

Faeces in burgers: all ground beef in US contains traces of harmful bacteria, study finds

The Independent – Wednesday 26th August

A new study reveals some pretty ugly realities about ground beef in the US, such as faecal matter in your burger. Out of 300 samples that were tested, all were found to contain enterococci and the type of E. coli that cause urinary tract infections and blood poisoning. These bacteria are common inhabitants of the bowel.

This points to poor hygiene standards in US abattoirs, but it also raises questions about animal welfare standards during transport and rearing methods. It is much harder to prevent carcass contamination when slaughtering dirty cattle. Most beef cattle in the United States spend much of their lives in feedlots – vast outdoor dirt enclosures where tens of thousands of cattle are kept together and fed a high concentrate diet but no grass, hay or even silage. Instead of being slaughtered and sold locally, cattle are increasingly being trucked huge distances to centralised slaughterhouses from which the meat is then distributed nationally. Such journeys increase stress and the risks cattle arriving in a soiled condition.

Ground beef products like burgers pose a greater risk than steaks and beef joints. The bacteria start off on the surface of the meat where they are easily killed by cooking, but the mixing which takes place when the meat is minced means that harmful bacteria are then found right through the product, requiring more thorough cooking to kill them all.

MRSA was found in three samples of intensively reared meat but in none of the meat from cattle raised more sustainably. But is the presence of faecal bacteria the main thing we should be worrying about in our meat? The on-going prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock, which is feeding the rise of antimicrobial resistance, is probably a more dangerous feature of conventional industrial farming and the researchers also found that the bacteria in the intensively raised cattle were more likely to be antibiotic resistant than those from cattle raised more sustainably.

Irish Sea: habitat as rich as the Amazon being put at risk by overfishing, conservationists warn

The Independent – Tuesday 25th August

The rich diversity of the Irish Sea is suffering from overfishing and habitat destruction. The trawling of the ocean floor for prawns is devastating an array of other species – in particular cod, sole and whiting – to the point that scientists are recommending that there should be no dedicated fisheries in the Irish Sea this year. There has, inevitably, been push back from the fishing industry, which argues that fishing in the Irish Sea is sustainable. This is belied, however, by the ongoing practice of trawling, which is far from sustainable in any sense of the word.

Trawling is the dragging of nets across the floor of the seabed. The nets indiscriminately pick up whatever is in their path and wreak havoc in the process. It could be described as a “scorched-earth policy for the sea floor“. The fishing technique has been around for hundreds of years but with the rise of industrial fishing in the 20th century, the size of nets – which can be as large as a football field – has significantly increased the amount of damage done to our seas.

Scientists believe that three-quarters of all animal species live on the sea floor. That’s an extraordinary figure and highlights how urgently we need to protect our seas. The Irish Sea is rich in rare species, including the ocean quahog and sea potato. Of 120 recommended conservation zones in UK waters, Defra has designated just 30 and the Irish Sea has only two. Isn’t it time to do more?

Government accused of failing to protect waterways from farm pollution

The Guardian – Thursday 27th August

The pollution of waterways by agricultural run-off is a global problem and governments all too often drag their heels on meaningful action in this area. Public suits and legal challenges, however, are becoming an effective means of pressurising governments into enforcing environmental laws. Three NGOs – WWF UK, the Angling Trust and Fish Legal – are currently taking legal action against the UK government to ensure they ante-up on their responsibility to protect England’s waterways and coastal areas from agricultural pollution. A number of “national treasures” – Poole harbour and the Avon River among them – are currently being damaged by run-off with a significant social and environmental cost.

This kind of pollution has been difficult to tackle. In the United States, there is a large loophole in Environmental Protection Agency legislation because run-off is ‘non-point source pollution’ – that is, not coming from a particular site. But in Britain, laws require the government to keep rivers and lakes in good health, so there is more leverage for enforcement. The environmental impact of agricultural run-off is one of the most significant costs of conventional agriculture, and one that it not borne by the polluter. There is little incentive for farmers to manage their land better by using practices that reduce soil erosion and prevent pesticides being washed into waterways. If the government is made to follow through on its responsibility to protect the health of waterways, it will still be the taxpayer rather than the polluter who foots the bill. How fair is that? More should be done to stop run-off pollution at its source by incentivising better, more sustainable, agricultural practice.

Congress is finally poised to rethink outdated US chemical laws

The Guardian – Tuesday 25th August

The pervasiveness of chemicals in our food chain and home environment has been of growing concern over the past few decades. In negotiating the landscape of chemicals that impact us in daily life, the United States is in a bit of a muddle – a dangerous one that needs sorting out quickly. US chemical laws haven’t been overhauled since the mid-1970s and the lack of reform has caused a crisis in consumer confidence. A read of the Environmental Working Group’s Back-to-School Guide is just short of terrifying. It outlines the array of dangers that are lurking in innocuous objects such as school binders, school uniform (stay away from anything marked stain- or water-resistant), pens and markers, plastic lunch boxes and drink bottles, all of which may carry chemicals harmful to our children.

An unlikely coalition has formed to ensure reform happens. Republicans and Democrats are working together alongside environmentalists, chemical companies and brand products, all of who see benefit in overhauling the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. While this unity is bound to dissolve over nitty gritty points of what constitutes safety and what research really indicates, at least it’s pushing for a needed review.

All this puts in stark relief how many chemicals we encounter as we move through an ordinary day, and more significantly, how little we actually know about their impact on our health and safety. As Richard Denison, senior researcher at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, DC, comments, “We have tens of thousands of chemicals on the market that we know little or nothing about.” The government must ensure this changes, allowing consumers to make sound and informed choices about what they buy.

Photograph: S.Ralph2010

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