David's blog posts for June 2014

Launch of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) on the environmental impacts of systemic pesticides



On Tuesday this week I was in Brussels, for a press conference to launch a major series of scientific publications on the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on the environment. On the same day, press conferences were also held in Manila, Tokyo and Ottawa. The publications are the culmination of 5 years work involving more than 50 scientists from 4 continents, and together we reviewed evidence from >800 scientific papers. Our findings are being published as 7 papers in a special issue of the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research. All have been accepted for publication following full, independent, scientific peer-review. The first of the seven is online now at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3180-5; this deals with impacts on vertebrates. The rest of the papers will appear soon as the journal finishes processing them for publication.

The conclusions of our work, in brief, are that these systemic pesticides are accumulating in soils and polluting waterways and natural vegetation across the world, leading to widespread impacts on wildlife inhabiting farmland and aquatic habitats. There is also growing evidence that much of their use is unnecessary and ineffective. But you can read all about this over the coming months as the papers come out: all of them are to be open access.

On Monday, the day before the press conference and before anyone could have seen the full set of documents, I received a rebuttal of our work from Croplife, an organisation that represents the agrochemical industry. It was quite clear that they hadn’t read any of it. Their criticisms were: that the work was selective in what it reviewed (we looked at 800 papers, everything that we could find); that we looked only at lab studies (a bizarre claim, and completely untrue); that we ignored the economic importance of neonicotinoids and didn’t consider how farmers would cope without them (there is a whole paper in the WIA just on this topic).

We have also been criticised because not all of our papers are yet available. Had this been a single report, just placed on the internet without scientific review, we could easily have made it all available. This is what industry usually does. But the scientific review and editing process is slow and not all of the papers were quite ready. On the plus side, they have the huge advantage that they have all passed independent scrutiny.  

On Wednesday, Syngenta launched a request to the UK government for an exemption to the European moratorium. They want to treat 186,000 hectares of oilseed rape woth a neonicotinoid – 30% of the UK crop – because they say that otherwise there is a “danger to production”. There appears to be no scientific evidence to back up this claim. Indeed, just a week ago on 18 June an industry spokesman appeared before the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee and was asked to provide a single scientific study showing that neonicotinoid seed dressings increased yield of any arable crop. Embarrassingly, he could not. They’ve been selling neonics for 20 years, but can provide no evidence that they work!? How do they differ from the quack doctors of days gone by, who peddled cure-alls on street corners with their slick patter?

One can read Syngenta’s request another way – they seem to be conceding that 70% of the UK’s oilseed rape doesn’t need treating with neonics. Why then was 100% treated before the moratorium?

This simply appears to be a ploy by industry to bypass the EU moratorium, which was based on sound scientific evidence, and recommended by the European Food Standards Agency. If you’d like to sign a petition against their request, go to: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/a-ban-is-a-ban

USA finally considering action over neonicotinoids, spurred on by doubts as to whether they actually work



Two US Congressmen have launched a bill to suspend uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in the US, following the lead of the European Union. Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Earl Bluemenauer or Oregon introduced the “Saving America’s Pollinators Act”. They were prompted by widespread honeybee colony losses and a major bumblebee kill in Oregon where 50,000 dead bumblebees were found beneath two lime trees as a result of their being sprayed with neonicotinoids for ornamental reasons (note that lime trees often have a few dead bumblebees under them for separate reasons that have never been fully explained). I was recently invited over to speak in Capitol Hill in support of this bill.   

The debate over neonicotinoids and bees rolls on and on, with new studies emerging every day. It seems to me that the evidence on bumblebees is clear and convincing - realistic doses are very likely to be doing harm to wild colonies – but the evidence for honeybees remains muddier. However, most of the studies finding no impact on honeybees have been funded by or performed by the industry that manufactures the chemicals, so murky waters are to be expected. 

My visit coincided with the launch of a fascinating review of the economic value of neonicotinoids, produced by the Centre for Food Safety, a US-based non-profit organisation. They review 19 studies that have evaluated how much neonicotinoid seed dressings (the usual way of using these chemicals) increase yield of a range of crops, including wheat, corn, soya beans, and oilseed rape. The findings are astonishing – in every case, the studies either found no benefit whatsoever, or weak and inconsistent benefits unlikely to offset the cost of the pesticide. As Dr Christian Krupke (a leading researcher on this topic at Purdue University) said to me, “There may be places in the US where the pests are so bad that farmers need neonicotinoid seed dressings, but we can’t find them”.

In short, the most widely used pesticides in the world - prophylactically applied to arable crops across the globe - appear to be ineffective, and to have been widely miss-sold. It reminds me a little of the Payment Protection Insurance scandal – farmers are advised to use seed dressings as an insurance against something which, it seems, almost never happens.

Remarkably, no similar studies seem to have ever been performed in the UK or elsewhere in Europe to evaluate how much, if at all, neonic seed dressings increase yield here. It would be easy to do – experimental plots of crops that are treated exactly the same, except for the presence or absence of the seed dressing. How did these chemicals come to be so widely used without the manufacturers demonstrating clearly that they worked? If they did perform such studies, why can nobody find them? Sceptics such as I might also point to Italy, where neonics were banned on corn some years ago and where yields have remained stable and corn farming profitable.   

For me, this turns the whole bee debate on its head. If neonic seed dressings were essential to grow crops, one might have to accept a risk of harm to bees. But it seems that they are not.

In Europe, a decision will need to be made in the next year or so as to whether the current EU moratorium is extended or allowed to lapse. This new evidence will hopefully help to prevent the latter.

Prof Dave Goulson, University of Sussex.

[An abbreviated version of this Blog is published in the newsletter of the BBKA, June 2014]