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The neonicotinoid saga continues

Jun

15

Yesterday saw publication of my review of the evidence for broader impacts of neonicotinoids on wildlife other than bees in the Journal of Applied Ecology. If you'd like to read it, please go to Goulson Lab publications page, scroll down, and click on the link to the pdf.

The key points are as follows:

1) Neonicotinoids are very widely used, and have extremely high toxicity to all insects and many crustaceans. They are commonly applied as a seed dressing to crops.

2) Most (<90%) of the active ingredient do NOT go into the crop, but get washed into the soil and ground water. They also leach into streams. Levels found in streams and California and the Netherlands commonly exceed lethal concentrations for aquatic wildlife. Data from UK waterways appear to be absent.

3) They have a half life in soil which commonly exceeds 3 years, meaning that they rapidly accumulate in soil if they are used annually. The effects of this on soil organisms and soil health are not understood.

4) Neonicotinoids have been found in field-margin vegetation, which is hardly surprising if they are accumulating in soils. Impacts of this on farmland wildlife such as butterfly caterpillars feeding on field margin vegetation have not been studied.

5) If dressed seeds are consumed by granivorous birds such as partridge, or by rodents such as voles, they need only eat a few seeds to recieve a lethal dose. During drilling, seed is inevitably spilled, but we do not know whether it is consumed by wildlife.

6) Evidence that neonicotinoid seed dressings actually increase yield is absent (or is not available for public scrutiny). Some US studies suggest that they have negligible benefit to farming. In short, modern farming practices do not seem to be EVIDENCE BASED, but are driven by marketing by the agrochemical industry.  

7) We seem to have forgotten all about Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an approach which emphasizes minimising pesticide use through monitoring of pest numbers, crop rotations, encouraging natural enemies etc... Instead we are simply using pesticides prophylactically.  

Although I supported the 2 year moratorium on use of neonics, which comes into effect in December 2013 (better than nothing), it is entirely unclear what it will achieve, or what will happen afterwards. Neonics will continue to be used extensively for non-flowering crops such as winter wheat. Even if we completely stopped using them they would be in soils for years to come. So any benefits from the partial moratorium will not be apparent in 2 years. In any case, there seems to be no plan to monitor the benefits, so if they did occur (which is unlikely) we wouldn't know.....

It is hard for most of us to make sense of what is going on here.....

 Dave Goulson's research lab website

 

  

 

Does anyone remember Rachel Carson? More on pesticides and bees...

Jan

15

As part of a project to study impacts of pesticides on bumblebees, we have recently been surveying what chemicals the local farmers in East Sussex use each year. Perhaps I was naive, but I found the figures to be astonishing. Below, I’ve pasted a list of the chemicals applied to two fairly typical fields, one with winter oilseed rape, one with winter wheat, in a single growing season (2012/13). For both crops, it is a very long list.

I should stress that these are perfectly normal farms; not especially intensive, situated on the edge of the South Downs, an area of gentle hills, hedgerows and wooded valleys. Beautiful, rural England; Constable would have liked it here. But let’s look at it from a bee’s perspective, focussing on the oilseed rape, since this is a crop they will feed on when it flowers:

Firstly, the crop is sown in late summer with a seed dressing containing the insecticide thiamethoxam. This is a systemic neonicotinoid, with exceedingly high toxicity to bees. We know it is taken up by the plant, and that detectable levels will be in the nectar and pollen gathered by bees in the following spring. In November, despite the supposed protection of the neonicotinoid, the crop is sprayed with another insecticide, the charmingly named Gandalf. What harm could the wise old wizard possibly do? Gandalf contains beta-cyfluthrin, a pyrethroid. Pyrethroids are highly toxic to bees and other insects, but there should be no bees about in November so that is probably OK. The following May, when it is flowering, the crop is sprayed with another pyrethroid,  alpha-cypermethrin. Less than three weeks later, the crop is blitzed with three more pyrethroids, all mixed together, a real belt-and-braces approach. Why use one when three will do? The crop is still flowering at this point (it was a late year), and would be covered in foraging bumblebees and other pollinators.

In between, the crop is also treated with a barrage of herbicides, fungicides, molluscicides and fertilizers – 22 different chemicals in total. Most of these may have little toxicity to bees in themselves, but some, such as a group of fungicides (the DMI fungicides), are known to act synergistically with both neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, making the insecticides much more toxic to bees. On the final application date, when the crop is flowering, one of these fungicides (prothioconazole) is added to the tank mix with the three pyrethroids. Any bee feeding will be simultaneously exposed to the three pyrethroids, the thiamethoxam in the nectar and pollen, and a fungicide that makes these insecticides more toxic.     

We don’t know what impact all of this really has on them. The safety tests generally expose test insects to just one chemical at a time, usually for just 2 days, but in reality they are chronically exposed to multiple pesticides throughout their lives. The fact that we still have bees in farmland suggests that they must be pretty tough. More broadly, we don’t know what impacts all of this has on other pollinators, or wildlife in general. Industry would tell us that all is well. They would also tell us (and the farmers that they advise) that all of these applications are vitally important parts of crop production, and that without them food production would collapse. I have my doubts. Is this really how we want to see the countryside managed? Do we really want to eat food produced this way?

I think I might head home early and finish digging over my veggie plot. At least I can control what goes into that.  

[PS If you find this blog of interest, please share it with your friends using the buttons below right] 

Winter Oilseed Rape

Date

Type of compound

Brand name

Active ingredients

Application method

25/08/2012

 

Insecticide and fungicide

Cruiser

280 g/l thiamethoxam, 8 g/l fludioxonil and 32.3 g/l metalaxyl-M

Seed dressing

Herbicide

Shadow

Quinmerac, Dimethenamid-p, Metazachlor

Spray

Herbicide

Dictate

480g/litre bentazone as sodium salt in the form of soluble concentrate

Spray

Fungicide

Fiddle

Clomazone

Spray

08/09/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

12/09/2012

Herbicide

Shadow

Quinmerac, Dimethenamid-p, Metazachlor

Spray

10/10/2012

Fungicide

Crawler

Carbetamide

Slug pelleter

05/11/2012

Fungicide

Genie 25

Flusilazole

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

16/02/2013

Fertiliser

Double Top

Ammonium Sulphate and Ammonium Nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

Fungicide

Crawler

Carbetamide

Slug pelleter

Herbicide

Pilot Ultra

Quizalofop-P-ethyl

Spray

10/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Ammonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

22/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Ammonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

17/05/2013

Fungicide

Filan

Boscalid

Spray

Fungicide

Flanker

Picoxystrobin

Spray

Insecticide

Alert

Alpha-cypermethrin

Spray

05/06/2013

Fungicide

Propulse

Fluopyram, Prothioconazole

Spray

Insecticide

Hallmark Zeon

100 g/l lambda-cyhalothrin and 1,2-benzisothiazolin-3-one

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

Insecticide

Mavrik

Tau-fluvalinate

Spray

  

Winter wheat

20/09/2012

Insecticide and fungicide

Redigo Deter

50 g/L (4.3% w/w) prothioconazole and 250 g/L (21.4% w/w) clothianidin

Seed treatment

28/09/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

26/10/2012

Molluscicide

Osarex W

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

02/11/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

06/11/2012

Herbicide

Dictate

480g/litre bentazone as sodium salt in the form of soluble concentrate

Spray

Herbicide

Fidox

Prosulfocarb

Spray

Herbicide

Liberator

Flufenacet, Diflufenican

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

10/01/2013

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

06/03/2013

Fertiliser

Sulphur Gold

Amonium sulphate-nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

08/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Amonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

23/04/2013

Herbicide

Quintacel5c

645 g/l (57% w/w) chlormequat chloride

Spray

Herbicide

Scitec

Trinexapac-ethyl

Spray

Fertiliser

Bittersaltz

Magnesium Sulfate

Spray

Fertiliser

Nutriphite Excel

Phosphate

Spray

30/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Amonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

07/05/2013

Fungicide

Bassoon

Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Kingdom

Boscalid, Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Bravo 500

Chlorothalonil

Spray

Herbicide

Quintacel5c

645 g/l (57% w/w) chlormequat chloride

Spray

Herbicide

Oxytril Cm

Ioxynil, Bromoxynil

Spray

27/05/2013

Fungicide

Adexar

Epoxiconazole, Fluxapyroxad

Spray

Fungicide

Bassoon

Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Bravo 500

Chlorothalonil

Spray

19/06/2013

Fungicide

Cello

Prothioconazole, Spiroxamine, Tebuconazole

Spray

Note: These data were compiled from information provided by the farmer, by my wonderful postdoc Dr Cristina Botias-Talamantes. Keep an eye on this blog for more revelations from her ongoing work.

Dave Goulson's research lab website

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

Jun

02

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]

Are crops being devastated without neonicotinoid protection?

Oct

10

Response to article by Matt Ridley in the Times, 6 October. Note that the Times refused to publish a (shorter) response that I sent to them:


To: letters@thetimes.co.uk

 

Dear Sir,

 

On 6 October, the Times published an opinion piece by Matt Ridley on the impacts of the neonicotinoid moratorium on farming. These insecticides are the subject of a partial 2 year ban introduced by the EU because of the perceived risk they pose to bees. Ridley asserts that oilseed rape crops are now being devastated because they are not being protected by these insecticides, claiming that in some regions up to 50% of the crop has been lost. He argues that there is “literally no good science linking neonics to bee deaths in fields” and that the moratorium only came about because “green lobby groups… have privileged and direct access to... European officials”. He goes on to claim that there is no evidence that bees are declining, and that they will be worse off if there is less oilseed rape for them to feed on as a result of the moratorium. He even sneaks in a quick go at badgers, suggesting that they may be the main problem that bumblebees face. In short, he says the moratorium is a typical barmy bit of EU legislation that is crippling farming for no good reason, no better than the apocryphal EU restrictions on the shape of bananas.

 

I’m one of the scientists who have been conducting this “no good” science, so you might not be surprised to hear that I have a rather different view of the situation. The EU decision was taken only after a team of scientists at the European Food Standard’s Agency had spent 6 months reviewing all the scientific evidence. They concluded that neonics pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees, and hence a majority of EU counties voted for the moratorium. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, came to the same conclusion, and urged our government to support the ban. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also concurred, and have banned use of all neonics on land they administer. Most recently, a team of 30 scientists, of which I was one, reviewed 800 papers on this topic and in a series of 8 articles published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, concluded that “The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity [of neonicotinoids] is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”.

 

These neurotoxins persist in soils for years, and they are now known to be found in hedgerow plants, streams and ponds. One teaspoon is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion honeybees (it would kill half of them, and leave the others feeling very unwell).  But they do not just pose a threat to bees; any insect living on farmland or in streams that flow from farmland, and any organisms that depend on insects for food (e.g. many birds and fish) are likely to be affected.

 

The backdrop to all this is that over the last 60 years arable farming has become highly dependent on a blizzard of chemical inputs. Many crops are treated with twenty or more pesticides each year, and grown in vast monocultures with minimal use of rotations and negligible attention paid to encouraging natural enemies that can help to control pests.

There is little space left for nature. As a result, European wildlife populations are collapsing. RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report summarizes the state of play, and it is bleak reading – most farmland wildlife groups for which we have data are overwhelmingly in decline. According to British Trust for Ornithology data, 44 million breeding birds vanished from the British countryside in the last decades of the 20th century.  

 

Conservation organizations are fighting a losing battle. To claim that they have “privileged” access to politicians is bizarre; never have green politics been so low on the agenda. It seems rather more plausible that those who profit from promoting intensive farming, particularly the agrochemical industry, are the ones with access to regulators and policy makers. Sales of neonics alone are worth $3billion pa, so that industry can afford to employ armies of lobbyists. Many EU countries have folded under pressure from industry and allowed farmers derogations to use neonics during the ban. Following the recent stories of oilseed rape losses in the UK, Defra have allowed farmers to spray different types of neonics onto their crops, while others have resorted to sprayed their rape seedlings up to 5 times with pyrethroid insecticides already this autumn, at the same time complaining that pyrethroids don’t work because the pests are resistant (so why use them?). In these circumstances the moratorium is worse than useless, but surely there is a better, more sustainable way forwards? We need to find ways to grow crops without damaging the environment. If rape cannot be grown in some areas without blitzing it with neurotoxins, then perhaps farmers should consider growing something else entirely? If they tried to wean themselves off their chemical dependency, introduced more diverse crop rotations, left small areas for wildlife, and tried to encourage natural enemies of their pests, they might find that their problems got better.

 

What of Ridley’s claim that oilseed rape crops are being wiped out because they are no longer protected by neonicotinoids? He is not the first to say this. In May, the NFU Vice President Guy Smith claimed on Farming Today that 70% of the Swedish spring oilseed rape crop had been wiped out by pests following the introduction of the neonic moratorium. This was wildly incorrect – when eventually official figures emerged, the yield was down just 5%. Two days ago Defra revealed official figures on the extent of the damage in the UK – 1.35% of the crop has been lost (http://www.hgca.com/press/2014/october/08/csfb-crop-losses-estimated-at-27-in-hgca-funded-%E2%80%98snapshot-assessment%E2%80%99.aspx). Note that some crops are lost every year, with or without neonics. So why would a senior politician (Matt Ridley is a tory Lord and brother-in-law to Owen Paterson) and VP of the NFU want to grossly exaggerate the damage, and hence by implication suggest that farmers cannot grow crops without neonics? This is not in the farmer’s best interests, or that of the environment, or that of consumers. One might be forgiven for wondering if they weren’t actually working for the agrochemical industry.

 

Finally, will bees suffer if farmers grow less oilseed rape because of the moratorium, as Ridley asserts? I doubt it. Bees need a steady supply of food through the year, not a four week spring glut followed by famine because there are few wildflowers. In any case, if you were offered a feast of food laced with a neurotoxin, or a more modest meal of unpoisoned food, which would you opt for? In a sense, that is the choice that we all face right now.

 

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, the latter describing the neonicotinoid controversy.

 

Neonics, crop losses, and ‘green activists’ – a plea for a little more accuracy in the media

Dec

20

I warn you now: this blog won’t be of much interest unless you’ve been following the neonic debate closely. It is in response to an opinion piece in the Telegraph by Christopher Booker (6 December 2014) and several recent blogs in a similar vein.

The gist of the article by Booker is that a group of dodgy scientists and green activists working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) got together in 2010 and plotted to get neonics banned. They are said to have received £350,000 of EU money via the IUCN to fund this work, which ultimately resulted in the current moratorium on neonics. This moratorium has, according to Booker, “done huge damage to agriculture all over Europe”. He cites a recent EU report as saying that the cost to UK farmers alone already stands at £640 million. Booker goes on to say that there is no good evidence that neonics harm bees. He states that Defra’s own field trials had shown no damage to bees, whereas the IUCN group relied only on highly artificial laboratory experiments to reach their conclusions. He finishes with the bold claim that Owen Paterson, who fought against the moratorium and cited the Defra field trial in support of his position, was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had”.

This all sounds like a great tale of dodgy doings, but let’s look at the actual facts for a minute. There is a group of scientists, linked to IUCN, who published a series of peer-reviewed scientific review papers on the impacts of neonics on the environment in summer 2014. These papers are all available for anyone to read at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3470-y. They are simply a review of the existing evidence – if you are really interested, read them yourself, and you can decide whether they are any good. I was asked to join this group in summer 2012, with a view to helping to write these papers, and it seemed like a good idea – the group contains many well-respected scientists from all over the world, bringing together diverse expertise. Scientists commonly come together in this way to write lengthy reviews of important topics. It is wildly inaccurate to say, as Booker does, that we relied “only on highly artificial laboratory experiments” – our reviews examined and describe hundreds of studies, many of them conducted in the field. The Defra field trial to which Booker attaches such weight was a total cock-up since all the ‘control’ bees became exposed to pesticides, so it was never published.      

You might wonder whether I received a share of the £350,000 for my contribution. So far as I know, there never was £350,000. I received nothing – in fact on the one occasion when I attended a meeting of this group I had to pay my own travel expenses. The whole thing was done on a shoestring, as meetings of scientists usually are. I did get a free cup of coffee. 

So what about the central claim that this group somehow engineered the neonic ban? The ban was proposed in January 2013, as a direct result of the European Food Standards Agency publishing three reports on neonics which concluded that they posed an “unacceptable risk” to bees. This was voted through in April 2013, and began in December 2013. Our reviews were not published until the summer of 2014, 16 months AFTER the ban was agreed in the European Parliament. So unless members of the European Parliament are able to see into the future, it is hard to see how their decision could have been influenced in any way by a group that had not at the time published anything whatsoever.

Finally, what about the “huge damage” that the neonic ban has done, and this figure of £640 million in crop losses in the UK alone?  I follow this topic closely, but have not heard of any such report. £640 million would represent the loss of about 12% of Britain’s entire agricultural output (including arable, dairy, horticulture etc.). Since the moratorium really only applies to oilseed rape, this would require the entire crop to have been wiped out (the total annual value of this crop varies between about £400 million and £700 million). However, the first sowing of oilseed rape without neonics in the UK was august 2014. About 1.5% was lost to flea beetle, according to the Home Grown Cereal Authority. Yes, that is correct - so 98.5% of the crop is fine. The crop won’t be harvest until summer 2015, so we have no way of knowing what the yield will be, or what losses, if there are any, might be due to the absence of neonics. So where on earth does this figure come from? Perhaps Booker also possesses the gift of foresight, and has foreseen a biblical plague of locusts in the spring?

Given all these wild inaccuracies, the claim that climate-sceptic Owen Patterson was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had” starts to seem quite reasonable by comparison. Why do newspapers publish such twaddle?

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  

 

PS To learn more about the neonicotinoid story, try reading chapter 13 of my new book, “A Buzz in the Meadow”


Biodiversity v Intensive Farming; Has Farming Lost its Way?

Jan

16

[This blog was posted as a guest blog on the Journal of Animal Ecology website, 16 Jan 2015, duplicated here for those that check my Uni blog]

Modern intensive farming produces plentiful, cheap food but is reliant on heavy use of agrochemicals and is a major driver of the ongoing collapse of wildlife populations. Taxpayers pay billions each year to support this system, with the bulk of this money going to the biggest, richest farming operations. In this blog I examine how we got to this unhappy position, question the need to further increase food production given current food waste, and suggest that we need to move towards a more sustainable, evidence-based farming system, with a source of independent advice for farmers, rather than allowing the agrochemical industry to shape the future of farming.  

It is not politically correct to criticise farmers or farming. We are brought up on stories about the adventures of a playful piglet who lives on a farm with a sheepdog, half a dozen chickens and a smiling cow, all presided over by a rosy-cheeked farmer, his wife and their two children. Farmers might also be portrayed as custodians of the land, where the countryside that they look after is filled with the sound of skylarks singing, bumblebees buzzing amongst the hedgerows, and butterflies flitting across sunlit, flowery meadows. 

Farming is of course the most fundamentally important of human activities; without farms and farmers, we would quickly starve. Going back to hunter-gathering is not an option. What is more, the human population is growing, and therefore we must increase food production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared in 2010 that we must double food production by 2050, and this rationale is used to justify the drive for ever-increasing yield. One might argue that we should focus all our research on increasing yield at all cost, else our grandchildren will starve.

These are two quite different views of farming, the former obviously wildly inaccurate, but in both the farmer is the hero. Of course there is a contradiction between the two, a fundamental conflict. The drive to increase food production has resulted in an intensive farming system that is scrubbing wildlife from the face of the land. In Europe, we have good long-term data on populations of birds, butterflies and moths, and the overwhelming pattern is that most species are in retreat (e.g. Fox et al. 2014 J Appl. Ecol. 51: 949-957; Inger et al. 2015). Rather few larks are still singing, and most of the butterflies are gone.  A recent study by Inger et al estimates that bird populations in Europe have fallen by 420 million in the last 30 years. Groups for which we have less precise data, such as bees and beetles, also seem to be going the same way. For the UK this depressing pattern is summarised nicely in RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report, which makes bleak reading. In short, farmland wildlife underwent massive declines through the twentieth century and in the twenty first century is still in rapid decline. Indeed, recent data for butterflies suggest that declines in many farmland species are accelerating

This continued decline is, on the face of it, puzzling. In Europe very large sums of tax-payers money are spent on agri-environment schemes: money paid to farmers to implement mechanisms to increase wildlife[1]. On the whole, farmers do not grub out hedgerows any more, or plough up ancient hay-meadows. They are more likely to replant hedgerows and attempt to restore flower-rich grasslands. Yet this does not seem to be working, for wildlife continues to disappear. What has gone wrong?

I would argue that there are two explanations. The first is that much of the funding for agri-environment schemes is wasted. The basic entry-level greening measures are so unambitious that a lot of farmers have to do next to nothing to qualify. There is little policing of what they actually do, and implementation of some schemes often fails. Wildflower strips on field margins are a good example – intended to support pollinators, they often don’t establish well, and end up containing nothing but coarse grasses. There are some shining examples of farmers who have successfully implemented a range of such schemes with measurable benefits for wildlife, but they are few and far between. [Note that these schemes have recently been revised in Europe, but overall funding has been cut and many farmers currently in the higher level schemes will soon find themselves getting no agri-environment subsidies at all, so it is unlikely that there will be a net improvement]  

The second relates to the way crop production systems have developed. Forty years ago there was substantial government funding for agronomic research. In the UK, we had many state-owned experimental farms where scientists developed new crops and devised integrated pest management programs. Rachel Carson’s famous 1963 book “Silent Spring” had highlighted the potential dangers of over-reliance on pesticides, and there was great interest in biological control agents, trap crops, rotations, cultural controls, use of resistant varieties, and so on. Today, most of those experimental farms have gone, or become essentially privatised, in attempts at cost-saving by successive governments. Industry has stepped in to fill the gap, shaping agriculture to its own ends. Now, agronomic funding comes almost entirely from the private sector – particularly the big companies that manufacture pesticides and develop GM crops. Most of the agronomists that advise farmers work for agrochemical companies (the figure is 71% in the UK[2]). Most arable farms in the UK use a minimal rotation –wheat, wheat, oilseed rape. Crops are commonly treated with ~20 different pesticides in a season[3], many of them applied prophylactically. [Ask yourself this: if you were growing veg in your garden for your family to eat, would you be comfortable spraying them with a cocktail of 20 different insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and molluscicides? If the answer is no, why are you happy buying food from the supermarket?]. The principles of IPM seem to have been discarded along the way. We have allowed current farming systems to be moulded by industry, and their goal is not to feed poor people in developing countries. Nor is it to look after wildlife, or worry about the long-term sustainability of production systems. It is to make the biggest profit that they can. Minimising pesticide use would be good for the environment, good for the long-term sustainability of farming, good for the farmer, and good for the consumer. But it won’t make big agrochemical companies rich.

Consideration of the current risk assessment procedures for new agrochemicals sheds some light on the failure of the current system. Typically, the safety of agrochemicals is examined by conducting acute toxicity tests for each compound on non-target organisms such as rats and bees, and comparing the response to plausible exposure scenarios in the field. So long as the animals are unlikely to receive a dose in the field anywhere near that which produces harm in short-term lab tests, all is regarded as well. These data are generally not made public, so they cannot be inspected or evaluated by independent scientists. There is currently no requirement to demonstrate that the new product provides a significant improvement in yield; such trials are presumably conducted by industry (well, one would like to think so), but are not made public. Under the current system, once a new product is on the market, farmers have little in the way of reliable, independent information available to them as to either the environmental risks posed or the efficacy of each product. They are largely reliant on the companies that manufacture the chemicals to advise them as to which ones they should use, with competing manufacturers providing conflicting advice, and all with a strong incentive to prescribe more use than may be necessary.

The current agrochemical regulatory system is clearly woefully inadequate.  In the real world, non-target organisms living in farmland are chronically exposed to multiple agrochemicals throughout their lives, not one at a time in a single dose. We know that these chemicals do not always act additively; for example some fungicides, while being of very low toxicity to insects in themselves, can greatly increase the toxicity of insecticides when an insect is simultaneously exposed to both. Such interactions will only be discovered when the chemicals have been approved and are in widespread use, which is far too late if one wishes to prevent environmental harm.

Interactions between agrochemicals, and the consequences of chronic rather than acute exposure, are just two important aspects that the current regulatory system fails to capture. Complex interactions also occur between agro-chemicals and other stressors. For example, low doses of pesticides which would produce no measurable effect in a lab toxicity trial can impair the immune system of honey bees, rendering them susceptible to viruses. Hungry animals (such as bees in flower-poor intensive farmland) are also more susceptible to both toxins and disease than well-fed lab stocks.  In short, our current regulatory system does not come anywhere close to approximating the complexities of the real world, and as a result we have failed to adequately protect biodiversity from the many stressors imposed by modern farming.

Of course it would never be possible to conduct realistic, long-term tests on every plausible combination of chemicals and other stressors. Perhaps we simply have to accept that modern, intensive farming is necessary if we don’t want to starve, and that loss of our wildlife is an unavoidable price that we have to pay?

I would suggest that there is a way forwards, but that we need a radically different, holistic and transparent approach based on scientific evidence. We need long-term farm-scale studies of crop production systems, comparing both the yield, profitability and the consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services of different systems (e.g. conventional versus a reduced input, “Integrated Pest Management” approach versus organic). Such studies need not be enormously expensive, for the farms would still be productive. Surprisingly few studies have simultaneously compared profitability and biodiversity benefits across farming systems, yet this is the fundamental trade-off in food production. Indeed, for most agrochemicals there is currently little publicly available evidence as to what yield benefits they individually provide[4]. If a new chemical, crop or farming system were to be proposed, and provided that it passed some basic safety tests, it could then by trialed alongside existing approaches. Only if a new product significantly increased yield, or was found to have positive benefits for biodiversity, or both, would it be approved. Such a system would evaluate new products in the context in which they would be used in the real world, rather than highly unrealistic trials as currently used. New agri-environment schemes could be evaluated using the same framework. All such studies should be open access. This has parallels to the laudable move to “evidence-based medicine” whereby new drugs or therapies are only approved following trials demonstrating that they provide a significant improvement over existing treatments. At present, our farming systems are not evidence-based, and what evidence that is available is hidden.     

I would also argue that we should question the drive towards further yield increases. People are not starving because we don’t grow enough food. In India, obesity is now a bigger problem than starvation. We grow more than enough food, but estimates suggest that nearly half of what is grown goes to waste, and many of us eat far more meat and many more calories than is good for us. In the developed world we spend less on food, as a proportion of income, than we ever did – food is cheap. It is a disgrace that anyone is still starving, but it has nothing to do with food production.  Indeed, if one could largely eliminate food waste then every farm in the world could go organic and, even with the concomitant reduction in yield, there would still be more than enough food to go around.    

Without a radical overhaul of farming systems, and of the way agronomic research is funded and conducted, there is no doubt that we will lose a significant portion of our biodiversity. Even for those that don’t give a damn about wildlife, this ought to be a major cause for concern because we depend upon wildlife to deliver the ecosystem services that underpin food production. We should be focussing on sustainable production of healthy food, not on producing more cheap, pesticide-laced food and then throwing half of it away. In our rush to increase yields, based on an ill-conceived notion that this is needed to feed the world, we run the risk of irrevocably damaging our environment and hence our food production system, so that our grandchildren really do starve. 

 

Dave Goulson

(twitter: @DaveGoulson)



[1] The EU gives out €59 billion per year in total in subsidies to farmers. Most of this is dished out as single farm payments, which are more-or-less payments simply for owning the land. There is currently no cap, so some major landowners receive millions in subsidies. For example in France, the 160 biggest farm holdings receive €123 million between them. The UK fought hard, and succeeded, in blocking EU proposals to cap subsidies at €300,000 per farmer. The vast majority of this money does not go to poor farmers in marginal areas who might be deserving of support. One might question why such extra-ordinary sums of tax-payers money should be given to rich people or corporations to enable them to continue to farm in a way that is destroying our natural heritage.  

[2] This figure was provided by an independent agronomist, Caroline Corsie, but I am unable to find official figures.

[3] I have quotes this figure before, and it has been heavily criticised. It was originally based on surveys of arable farms in East Sussex in south east UK, which applied between 18 and 21 different pesticides to each wheat or oilseed rape field in 2013 (some of them multiple times). I’ve heard it said that we must have found the most intensively farmed fields in England. However, Defra’s own statistics demonstrate that this is spot on – their PUSSTATS website is open access, and one can obtain information on the total area of arable crops in Britain, and the total area treated with pesticides. The latter is almost exactly 20 times the former, demonstrating that the average arable field receives 20 applications. This average includes organic farms, so the mean for conventional farms must be higher.  

[4] This was recently highlighted by an astonishing revelation from the USA Environmental Protection Agency. They revealed a number of studies showing that application of neonicotinoid seed dressings to soya beans has zero impact on yield. At the advice of agronomists, farmers had been routinely applying neonics to soyabeans over 30 million ha, at an annual cost of $240 million. This seems to refute the oft-used argument “Farmers aren’t fools – they wouldn’t waste money on pesticides they didn’t need”. 

Crop yields higher than ever without neonics

Feb

16

In the run up to the vote on a EU-wide moratorium on use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops, which came about because of a growing body of scientific evidence that they were doing significant harm to bees, the agrochemical industry produced glossy documents declaring that this moratorium would cause massive reductions in crop yields, huge job losses in the agriculture sector, etc. etc.. You can read one such report here: http://www.hffa.info/files/wp_1_13_1.pdf This tells us that, if the moratorium were to go ahead, “the EU could lose 17 billion EUR and more; 50 thousand jobs could get lost economy-wide; and more than a million people.. would certainly suffer..”. They wanted us to believe that farmers couldn’t grow crops without these chemicals.

As you probably know, the moratorium went ahead, though the UK voted against it, presumably won over by such arguments. Now we are in the second year of the moratorium, we can start to evaluate whether this was true. Annual spring-sown crops that were sown in 2014 without neonics (sunflower and maize) have now been harvested. And the yields? Across the EU, which includes regions with a broad range of climates, yields were HIGHER that the five year average, in some regions more than 25% higher. You can see this for yourself at: http://mars.jrc.ec.europa.eu/mars/Bulletins-Publications - have a look at the December 2014 Bulletin [1].  Whatever happened to the crop devastation predicted by industry? It now starts to look like a lot of hot air and bull***t.

Right now, there is a pitched battle in Ontario – the state government is proposing major restrictions on neonics, and the agrochemical industry are pulling out all the stops to prevent it, perhaps because they fear that other parts of North America might follow suit if Ontario go ahead. They published a full page “Open letter to Ontarians” in several major newspapers, in which they claim that neonics don’t harm bees, and that they are “vital” to farmers.  Déjà vu? Ontarians might do well to look at Europe when weighing up the truth of these claims. I for one am not inclined to believe them.  

All this also makes me wonder - what other chemicals has industry been telling farmers they need, when actually they don't? How much of pesticide use is based on evidence, and how much on marketing hype/ sales pressure?


[1] Note that oilseed rape is autumn sown so the first crop without neonics wasn’t sown until August 2014, we won’t see the yields until summer 2015]

Dave Goulson's research lab website

Are robotic bees the future?

Feb

07

Robot bee

 

There have been a number of scientific papers published in recent years discussing the possibility of building miniature flying robots to replace bees and pollinate crops. Clumsy prototypes have been tested, and seem to crudely work. If crops could be pollinated this way, farmers wouldn’t have to worry about harming bees with their insecticides. With wild bee populations in decline, perhaps these tiny robots are the answer?

While I can see the intellectual interest in trying to create robotic bees, I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots? Even if the robots could be built, complete with power pack and control devices, for one penny each (which seems absurdly optimistic) it would cost £32 billion to build them. And how long would they last? Some would malfunction, some would get caught out in the rain, some would be damaged by wind or spiders’ webs. If we very optimistically calculate the lifespan at one year, that means spending £32 billion every year (and continually littering the environment with trillions of tiny robots, unless they could be made biodegradable). What about the environmental costs of manufacture? What resources would they require, what carbon footprint would they have? Real bees avoid all of these issues; they are self-replicating, self-powering, and essentially carbon neutral.    

Thus far I have glossed over a vital further point. Pollination is not all done by honeybees. Numerous other insects pollinate crops and wildflowers, including butterflies, beetles, moths, flies, wasps and many more. These come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes suited to different flowers. Honeybees contribute at best 1/3 of crop pollination, averaged across crops. So we wouldn’t just need to replace the 3.2 trillion honeybees. We’d also need to replace countless trillions of other insects. All to replace creatures that currently deliver pollination for free.

Declines of bees are symptomatic of larger issues. It is not just bees that are declining; almost all wildlife is declining in the face of massive habitat loss and pollution across the globe. Even supposing we could create robot bees cheaply enough for it to be viable, should we? If farmers no longer need to worry about harming bees they could perhaps spray more pesticides, but there are many other beneficial creatures that live in farmland that would be harmed; ladybirds, hoverflies and wasps that attack crop pests, worms, dung beetles and millipedes that help recycle nutrients and keep the soil healthy, and many more. Are we going to make robotic worms and ladybirds too? What kind of world would we end up with?

Do we have to always look for a technical solution to the problems that we create, when a simple, natural solution is staring us in the face? We have wonderfully efficient pollinators already, let’s look after them, not plan for their demise.