The two year restriction of neonicotinoids, which came in to effect in December 2013, has caused much controversy amongst farming communities. One report has estimated a 20% decline in yield, subsequently resulting in a loss of £630 million per year to the UK farming industry. However, there is now strong evidence to suggest that these figures have been wildly overestimated, and life without neoticonitoids is not as dark and gloomy as perhaps first imagined.

Insect pollinators play a vital role in global food production, with 75% of crop species having at least some dependence on them. It is now widely understood that pollinator numbers are in dramatic decline. This could not only effect the functioning of valuable ecosystems, but could also have significant economic impacts on a global scale. In recent years, neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides with a chemical nature similar to that of nicotine) have been linked to the global decline in pollinators, more specially, honey-bee colony collapse disorder. In April 2013, 15 European nation states voted for a two year restriction on the use of neonicotinoids in a bid to measure the true impact of the chemicals on bee species.

The Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture report funded by Bayer and Syngenta has estimated a £450million a year loss to wheat production, and a £170 million a year loss to oil-seed rape as a result of the ban. The report also claims that this loss will make the production of winter wheat unprofitable and therefore unviable for many UK farmers. These figures have understandably been a cause for huge concern amongst farmers, but how accurate are they?

Peter Lundgren, a Lincolnshire based farmer conducted a study to measure the true cost of using alternative measures of pest control. Peter’s farm is fully conventional, but a couple of years ago he voluntarily gave up neonicotinoids in order to pursue more bee friendly farming. On his farm, Peter primarily grows wheat and oil seed rape, both of which have been estimated to have catastrophic yield declines as a result of the restriction. Since converting to an alternative insecticide which is applied using a spray, he measured the difference in yield from his crops and compared the results to previous years when he was using neonicotinoid seed treatments. He has found that since self imposing the ban on his farm, his yields have seen little decline, and in some cases actually surpassed expectation. With his oil seed rape crop he lost £2-20 per hectare, as appose to the £230 per hectare loss predicted by the Humboldt report. And as for his winter wheat crop, he found he actually saved £13 per hectare – a far cry from the £225 per hectare loss also predicted by the report.

A grower in Somerset made contact with Peter after hearing about his work. He had also chosen to give up neonicotinoids and came across an unexpected benefit. He found that because the new pesticide was not killing the beetles on his crop, the beetles were actively preying on slug eggs therefore eliminating the need for slug control. Although the new pesticide was slightly more costly, the savings made by not having to buy alternative slug control actually balanced out the extra expense. It is these messages that Defra should be conveying to farmers, altering farming regimes to support biodiversity does not necessarily have to be a costly exercise, especially when considering the long term benefits of having more pollinators on the farm.

At the most recent APPG Agroecology meeting in London, the topic of conversation was Defra’s new upcoming UK National Pollinator Strategy. The publication is currently in consultation stage and is being designed to address the situation of pollinator decline the UK. One of the primary focuses is the need for better knowledge sharing between farmers, scientists, policy makers and NGOs. Importantly, it was also stressed that as conventional famers make up approximately 90% of farms in the UK, it is essential that methods for pollinator protection and promotion are finically viable for both organic and conventional producers.

There is hope that with a new strategy in place and more research into alternative pest control measures, we can start to safeguard our pollinator species. The farmers that are putting pollinator friendly regimes into practice and communicating their results are hugely valuable in conveying the message that there is a future beyond neonicotinoids, and there is a good chance that it looks yellow, black and buzzy.

For more information about Peter’s work please visit his website www.peterlundgren.co.uk. For the current status of Defra’s pollinator strategy, click here.

Photograph by Dean Morley

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