On Wednesday 22nd July, the UK government caved into pressure from the National Farmers Union (NFU) to allow farmers to use neonicotinoid-treated oilseed rape (OSR) seeds in limited parts of the country. They will be sown after this year’s harvest on approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) – 5% of the area on which the crop is currently grown.

Despite an EU-wide ban on the use of several neonicotinoids on crops considered attractive to bees, the government has granted farmers emergency use of two of these insecticides: they will serve as seed treatments for 120 days to help deal with the increasing threat posed by flea beetles that eat the leaves of OSR seedlings. This is said to be especially severe in certain regions.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticide that control a wide range of pests. They act on the central nervous system and kill insects by causing paralysis. They are mostly used in seed treatments for cereals and OSR (90% of their total use), as well as soil treatments and foliar sprays. In 2010, they were used on about 30% of cropland. Farmers have become increasingly reliant on neonicotinoids as resistance has developed to most other insecticides due to their past widespread use. The NFU supports the use of neonicotinoids, arguing that any harmful effects have not been seen in normal field conditions and that banning them would have a severe impact on UK business and the cost of food. The current decision comes after a long-running campaign by the NFU to get the EU ban overturned.

Evidence of damage

There is, however, mounting evidence that neonicotinoids have a negative impact on bees, despite concerns about the lack of data from field trials. Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the evidence is the Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems put together by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, an independent group of 30 scientists from around the world. Published in January this year the report reviews 1,121 published peer-reviewed papers from the past five years and concludes that:

The evidence indicates that levels of systemic pesticides [of which neonicotinoids are the most common] that have been documented in the environment are sufficient to cause adverse impacts on a wide range of non-target organisms in terrestrial, aquatic, wetland, marine and benthic habitats. There is also a growing body of evidence that these effects pose risks to ecosystem functioning, resilience and services such as, for example, pollination and nutrient cycling.

A recent paper published in the journal Nature concluded that the threat of pesticides to insects could be worse than previously imagined: “Insecticidal use can pose a substantial risk to wild bees in agricultural landscapes, and the contribution of pesticides to the global decline of wild bees may have been underestimated.”

So why isn’t the government acting on this evidence and pushing for pesticide reduction on all fronts? There are, of course, many reasons for government inaction, but one of them is the pressure it faces from lobbyists (such as the NFU) and pesticide-producing companies.

In bed with business

As recently as March 2015, Professor Dave Goulson, a leading researcher of bee ecology and conservation at the University of Sussex, re-analysed a 2013 study by the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), which had originally found that neonicotinoid pesticides had no effect on bees. Although the study was used by the government to make a case against the EU moratorium on neonicotinoids, re-analysis of the data showed that wild bumblebee populations were in fact negatively affected by exposure to the insecticide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lead author of the original study left Fera to work for Syngenta – one of the largest neonicotinoid producers.

Perceptions that the government is too close to the pesticide industry will have been reinforced when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was accused only last week of gagging its own pesticide advisors who had refused a secret application by the NFU to lift the ban on the use of neonicotinoids. The gag was aimed at preventing campaigners from lobbying ministers on the issue.

The SFT recommends a different approach

SFT Policy Director Richard Young says:

The fundamental issue here is that British farmers cannot grow oilseed rape without the use of these pesticides. This is because the crop rotations they use – typically wheat, wheat, oilseed rape, wheat, wheat, oilseed rape – are far too lacking in diversity. This allows pests and diseases to build up, which can only be controlled by chemicals that have harmful effects on non-target species.

There is increasing evidence that more diverse cropping systems based on longer rotation cycles reduce the need for chemical inputs (nitrogen fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides) and still maintain crop yields. Recent research by a group of academics, including someone who works for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (firmly within the mainstream of agricultural practice), concluded that: “Grain yields, mass of harvested products, and profit in the more diverse systems were similar to, or greater than, those in the conventional system, despite reductions of agrichemical inputs.”

But the benefits of reducing chemical inputs went even further: farms that had longer crop rotation cycles also had cleaner freshwater (“toxicity of the more diverse systems was two orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional system”) and weed growth was the same as on conventional farms.

A farming system that effectively integrates longer crop rotation cycles with livestock reared on pasture can help farmers reduce their dependency on chemical inputs. A mixed farming system that is less dependent on chemical inputs would have the added benefits of increasing soil fertility and levels of soil carbon. In turn, this would reduce soil erosion and increase biodiversity of plants, birds and insects (some of which would even help to reduce crop pests).

Photograph: Carron Brown

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