On 22 March, EU member states are meeting again to discuss a full ban on the world’s most widely used pesticides, neonicotinoids. It’s a crucial chance to protect our pollinators, children and crops and rethink our whole food system, writes Dave Goulson.
Dave Goulson is a professor at the School of Life Sciences, the University of Sussex. His op-ed was endorsed by a number of EU scientists.*
Humans need bees. Nearly a third of our food supply would disappear without the work of domestic honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators. The vital importance of these insects to both natural ecosystems and our own survival cannot be overestimated.
Many governments have insisted that our standards of protection for our pollinators are strong enough. But as scientists who have spent decades studying the fragile web of insects, the environment, and the crops we all depend on for survival, we beg to differ.
Many wild pollinators have undergone major declines, with some species now globally extinct. Although the causes of these declines are complex, involving habitat loss and spread of non-native diseases, exposure to pesticides has emerged as likely to be a significant contributor.
In particular, there is a large and still growing body of scientific research on neonicotinoid insecticides, suggesting that they have a range of harmful effects on bees from directly killing them to impairing their navigation, reducing their fertility, and suppressing their immune system.
As a result of mounting evidence linking neonicotinoids to bee declines, in 2012 the European Commission commissioned a review of the science. Released in January 2013, it concluded that the three most widely-used neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees.
As a result, the European Commission proposed a ban on the use of these three compounds on flowering crops that are visited by bees. Despite heavy lobbying from the pesticide industry, who predicted major crop losses if this went ahead, this partial ban came into effect in December 2013. At a European scale, the ban appears to have had no measurable impact on crop yields.
Since then, further evidence of the risk these pesticides pose to bees have been piling up. A new damning report from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) just confirmed, again, that almost all current uses of neonicotinoid insecticides pose serious risks to bees.
Published last month, after two years of examining over 1,500 reports from around the world, and detailed appraisal of 588 scientific experiments from the scientific literature, and with a wider scope, it confirmed neonicotinoids’ harm to both wild and domesticated bees.
This is in line with a number of other reviews of this topic published by independent scientists in the last year and with a 2015 European Academy of Science Advisory Council Report. It has become clear that neonicotinoids do not only pose a risk to bees when used on flowering crops; they remain in the soil long after the treated crop is gone, contaminating follow-on crops as well as wildflowers in field margins.
This report certainly strengthens the case for further restrictions on neonicotinoid use across Europe – and beyond. EU members states, the US and Canada, all of which are reconsidering how to deal with these pesticides, now have a responsibility to further restrict these chemicals. Moreover, we would argue that a fundamental rethink of farming methods is needed, too.
For the last 60 years we have been on a pesticide merry-go-round, where successive generations of pesticides are released, and a decade or two later they are banned when the environmental harm they do emerges. Each time they are replaced by something new, and each new group of chemicals brings new and unanticipated problems. Considering our intelligence, it is remarkable that we humans can keep making the same mistake over and over again.
A recent study from German nature reserves found a 76% decline in overall flying insect biomass in the 27 years to 2016. It may be a coincidence that this period matches almost exactly the adoption by farmers of neonicotinoid insecticides (whose use has risen steadily since 1994), but more generally there can be no doubt that the drenching of our landscapes with pesticides is playing a major role in driving these insect declines.
If we lose insects, we lose not only our pollinators but also the main food for countless birds, bats, reptiles, fish and amphibians. Our Earth’s ecosystems would collapse. Surely it is time to get off the pesticide merry-go-round and develop sustainable ways to feed the world. We need global restrictions on neonicotinoid use now, and we need to make sure we do not replace them with something equally harmful.
We do not need to look far to find alternatives. Research out last month shows there are feasible integrated pest-management techniques which save the environment and farmers’ wallets. Conventional farmers are already successfully farming without neonics. And organic farming produces, on average, 80% of the crop yield.
With small reductions in food waste (currently running at 35%) and red meat consumption, it could easily feed the world. Small-scale agroforestry and permaculture systems offer higher yields than conventional farming. There are far better ways to feed the world than huge monocultures of crops repeatedly treated with mixtures of pesticides.