During the last weeks, there has been a lot of press about the effects of pesticides, especially neonicotinoid components, on pollinators and in particular on honeybees. My wife is called Bee, so you can understand my interest in the topic.
The stories were already there in previous years, but the recent decision by the European Commission to call for a two-year moratorium on three of the main products has galvanised the opinions.
The European Commission decision was mainly based on the precautionary principle: The law-makers are not sure what the effects are, but they are concerned. The Commission therefore wanted to take the precaution to install certain restrictions, which could be lifted if they were re-assured that there is no risk”. The European Food Safety Authority stated that there is a lack of data and recommends to carry out further research, but it has labeled some of the products unsuitable for use on flowering crops used by honeybees.
Interestingly, the Swiss government decided against introducing the same restrictions in Switzerland. Minister of Agriculture Johann Schneider-Ammann claimed the European Commission findings were flawed.
A few days ago, British Minister for Environment Owen Paterson expressed his doubts about the European Commission decision, and suggested that Britain would not support the proposals. France, the Netherlands and Poland were in favour of the moratorium.
The industry claims that the restrictions on the use of these pesticides, makes agricultural production more difficult and more expensive, and that without certain chemicals the risk of disease and crop failure increases. They argue that we cannot afford this in times of food shortage and a growing population, and that the risks are minimal with appropriate dosage and application. They do not say that the chemicals are harmless, but state that “studies into the impact of neonicotinoid based products on European pollinator populations are inconclusive”.
During discussions last Friday, EU Member States did not back the proposals from the Commission, and the moratorium will therefore not take place. Not my preferred option, as I believe in the precautionary principle, and it is better to be safe than to be sorry. But, the decision was made not to impose the restrictions.
Now that the discussion is over, I take away four key messages:
1. We need more studies and better understanding about the effects of the chemicals. This has to be independent, unbiased information about the long-term ecological side-effects of current products. Resolution 137 of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju in September 2012 calls for a comprehensive scientific review of the impact on global biodiversity of systemic pesticides by the joint task force of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM). One has to assume that this review will be unbiased and credible!
2. We need new components and safer compounds. This requires Research and Development, especially by the industry. The European Commission, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and national authorities should work together with the industry to promote more R&D and ensure that research is focused on finding appropriate alternatives.
3. Thirdly, we need increased efforts to support bees and other pollinators in the field. Farmers and beekeepers will need to combat the spread of parasites and diseases, such as the varroa parasitic mite, but habitat loss has been identified as one of the other key issues that contribute to the decline of pollinators. We can turn habitat degradation around through promotion of High Nature Value agriculture with a rich mix of flowering plants, healthy field margins and hedgerows, well maintained stone walls, patches of woodland or scrub, small rivers and ponds, and avoidance of large-scale monoculture cropping.
4. Finally, where pesticides are used, the industry needs to continue its efforts to combat use of illegal substances, and to train farmers how to apply chemicals in the most effective manner.