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Toxic by nature
How the endemic use of pesticides is causing extensive environmental damage
16-07-2014 | Pesticides have long been suspected of harming more than just the pests they’re targeting. Now a new report has conclusively shown that neonicotinoids – the world’s most widely used pesticides - cause major damage to biodiversity and ecosystems. It’s the strongest evidence yet that neonicotinoids are a key factor in the collapse of bee populations, harm other invertebrates and cascade through ecosystems weakening their stability. Most worryingly, the contamination is so widespread it’s putting global food production at risk. It could be the most compelling argument for the transition to a truly sustainable farming system yet.
In June an international group of scientists reported what many campaigners have suspected for a long time – that the endemic use of pesticides in conventional agriculture is causing extensive environmental damage. While there have been growing concerns about the impact of systemic pesticides for 20 years, the new report has presented the first conclusive evidence that they are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial invertebrate species and are a key factor in the decline of bees. The reports authors contend that the contamination is so ubiquitous that it puts global food production at risk.
"The agrochemical companies have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea that they provide a silver bullet.."
Simon Crichton, Triodos Bank's food, farming and trade team manager
The study’s main focus was on the group of chemicals called neonicotinoids (neonics), which were introduced as pesticides to agriculture in the 1990s and have now become the world’s most widely used pesticides. The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides set out to provide a comprehensive, independent analysis of these chemicals and their impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. The Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) report, which was funded by the Triodos Foundation in the Netherlands, is the outcome of a full review of 800 scientific studies. These individual studies looked at impacts on particular organisms and habitats, with few specifically focused on biodiversity and ecosystem impacts, so this analysis moves our understanding forward in a much more holistic and extensive way.
One of the lead authors of the WIA, Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin of The National Centre for Scientific Research in France said, "The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem."
To put it another way, the insecticides deployed to secure the short-term prospects of our crops could, if left unchecked, inadvertently scupper the long-term future of our food supply.
The problem with pesticides
Neonicotinoids are a nerve poison and the effects of exposure range from instant and lethal to chronic. They differ from other pesticides as they’re commonly used as a preventative pesticide, with seeds routinely treated rather than addressing specific problems with pests. The chemicals then spread throughout all parts of the plant, impacting on all species that eat its seeds, sap, pollen or fruit. Insecticides washes off fields into streams, rivers and seas, the soil becomes contaminated through year on year build up. These impacts cascade through the ecosystem weakening its stability.
Neonics have long been suspected as a major cause of mass deaths in honey bees, which have been declining for the last 60 years but whose plight has worsened since neonics’ introduction, with numbers halving in the last 25 years. But while much of the attention around their ill effects has focussed on the economically and symbolically important honey bee, the report shows that neonicotinoids are causing significant damage to a far more diverse group of creatures, including other insect pollinators, aquatic invertebrates and birds.
The impact on insect pollinators is the most worrying in terms of food supply. Three quarters of our main food crops are pollinated by insects, including many of the most nutritious and interesting fruits and vegetables. Further decline in insect pollinators, particularly bees, will have a devastating effect on production of these food crops. Another of the reports authors, Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex said, "if we didn’t have those bees, if we don’t look after them, then we won’t have most of the fruits that we like to eat, most of the vegetables that we like to eat. We’d be eating porridge, rice, bread; not much else. Life would be awful."
The report’s authors have called for regulatory agencies to further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids, and start planning for a global phase-out. Some restrictions are already in place, notably a two year moratorium imposed by the EU which means the pesticides can’t be used on flowering crops which are attractive to bees such as oil seed rape. But even this temporary ban is far from watertight. The day after Task Force on Systemic Pesticides’ report was published, agrochemical company Syngenta appealed for an exemption to the ban, which national governments can provide in an emergency situation. Syngenta had argued that the pesticides are needed to protect oil seed rape from damage by aphids and flea beetles, and that there are no alternatives available. The company withdrew it application nine days later, blaming lack of time before the growing season rather than the swarm of protest which saw hundreds of thousands rally against it. But this could still be only a temporary reprieve as Syngenta has said it will consider making a new application in 2015.
No silver bullet
Despite the widespread use of the chemicals there is surprisingly little evidence of their benefits to farmers. The Task Force described the low numbers of published studies evaluation neonicotinoids’ effect on yield and cost-effectiveness as ‘striking’, and highlights some recent studies that their use provides no net gain or a net economic loss on some crops.
Given that there’s little proof of their effectiveness, but compelling evidence of the harm to do to the environment, why isn’t there more consensuses to seek alternatives? For one, agrochemical companies like Syngenta, Bayer and BASF are a powerful lobby, able to bring substantial resource to play extolling the virtues of their products - Syngenta even has its own ‘plight of the bees’ web pages to downplay neonicotinoids’ role in the insects’ decline. And with annual sales of neonicotinoids worth in the region of two billion euros they have a significant incentive to maintain the status quo. But there also needs to be a change of mindset about what we eat and the way it’s produced, from governments and farmers, through to consumers.
"The agrochemical companies have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea that they provide a silver bullet; that their sprays can solve all farmers’ problems. But there is no silver bullet, just a vicious circle compounding the issue," says Simon Crichton, Triodos Bank’s food, farming and trade team manager. "Routine spraying of pesticides puts the ecosystem out of balance. It harms beneficial insects as well as the target and places selective pressure on the pests to build up resistance to the chemicals. And while monocultures provides ease of management for big agribusiness, it creates the right environment for pest populations to build up and thrive."
From the roots up
The solution will mean farmers having to change what they grow and the way they grow. Organic farming severely restricts the use of pesticides, with farmers instead developing nutrient-rich soil to grow strong, healthy crops, using wildlife to help control pests and disease. Soil nutrient management and crop rotation are examples of farming practices used in an integrate approach to help prevent and limit the impact of crop pests, weeds and diseases.
"We need to move from short-termism to methods that work with nature rather than against it. That means crop rotation, alternative cultivation methods and mixed crop types and varieties. This cultivates a healthy and more diverse population of natural predators to ensure the environment remains in balance. It’s completely at odds with the monoculture that we’ve seen develop over the last 40-50 years," says Crichton.
Transforming farming from the roots up won’t be easy. Farmers have to embrace new growing methods and governments must switch their support from intensification to the real sustainable alternatives. And crucially, consumers need to make more conscious choices of what they buy on a daily basis, driving demand for organic and sustainable food. The alternative - living in a world without bees and the role they play in our ecosystem - doesn’t bear thinking about.