Looking after bees and other pollinators is compatible with providing people with quality, reliable food – claims Sandra Bell
In just the last fortnight, two new pieces of research have added to the mounting evidence suggesting that insecticides are a key factor in the decline of bees. The United Kingdom alone has 266 species of bumblebee and solitary bee but 71 of these are on the Red List of threatened species.
Similar concerns about bee decline and the implications for food production are shared across Europe. Research by the University of Sussex and University of Stirling has found that toxic pesticides could halve bumblebees’ ability to collect food. Scientists found that when bumblebees ingest even very low levels of the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid, it can seriously impact their ability to feed their young.
Imidacloprid is one of the three neonicotinoid insecticides – neonics – temporarily banned by the European Commission last year. The decision to restrict the use of these pesticides shows the commission acting decisively for environmental protection. It would have been irresponsible if the European Union had sat on its hands after the European Food Safety Agency identified ‘high acute risk’ to honey bees from these three chemicals.
But the ‘ban’ is temporary – only lasting up to two years from December 1, 2013 – and partial; not covering use on crops in greenhouses or winter-sown cereals, for example. Alternative insecticides, such as pyrethroids, are not covered by the ban but can be harmful to bees and other wildlife. Research by British scientists published in January 2014 found evidence of harm to honey bees from the use of the pyrethroid lamda cyhalothrin.
The UK National Farmers’ Union is opposing the neonics ban. It claims that pyrethroids are more damaging to bees and that neonics are a safer option requiring less spraying. However, evidence from farmers that plants grown from neonic-treated seeds have still needed repeated pyrethroid sprays casts doubt on this claim. The truth is that the neonic ban can only be fully effective if it prompts EU member states to promote alternative pollinator-friendly methods of crop protection, not just changing to using different chemicals instead.
For example, techniques such as trap-cropping and companion planting have real potential to maintain crop yields. And developing new non-genetically modified resistant crop varieties could cut farmers’ costs further by reducing the need to spray. Governments need to promote these existing techniques to farmers and fund more research into new methods that could help with pest control.
Herbicides and fungicides also pose a threat to bees. Broad-spectrum herbicides, which do not target particular weeds, remove crucial sources of food for bees when crops are not in flower. And fungicides have been found to interact with insecticides increasing their toxicity to bees. Another concern is that pesticides are not tested for their effects on wild bees, despite the EFSA’s warning that the impacts could be different and must be assessed.
This is especially important as wild bees do the majority of crop pollination. Recent research highlighted a shortfall in honey-bee colonies across Europe, which increases our dependence on wild bees to pollinate crops instead. Fruit growers are particularly dependent on insect pollinators, which improve the quality and quantity of crops like apples. This is starkly shown in China, where in some areas growers have to pay people to pollinate apples using paintbrushes because the wild pollinators have been wiped out.
The EU’s Sustainable Use Directive already requires member states to reduce the risks and impacts of all pesticides on human health and the environment. Countries must set out how they will promote integrated pest management to reduce pesticide use as well as alternative approaches to help farmers end reliance on chemicals. Unfortunately, the UK has yet to rise to the challenge. It has presented weak plans that will do little to reduce high reliance on pesticides.
The commission should be bold in seeking compliance with this importance directive across member states. Looking after bees and other pollinators is compatible with providing people with quality, reliable food. Continued use of pesticides, almost as a prophylactic, is not. The EU restriction on neonics is important and should be made permanent – and extended to other pesticides proven to harm bees. Proper implementation of the pesticides Sustainable Use Directive would see reliance on chemical crop protection minimised across member states, benefiting bees and the environment.
Sandra Bell is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth