Save the bees not the pesticides!
Yesterday the farming and pesticides industries attacked European regulations that protect our health and the environment. The National Farmers Union (NFU), the agricultural industries confederation (aic) and the Crop Protection Association (CPA) said the loss of pesticide products resulting from EU regulations makes it harder to grow food and will push food prices up. The report specifically warned about the threat to UKs stables including apples, potatoes and wheat crops.
The CPA represents companies that make pesticides so their interest in keeping them on the market is obvious and consequently the report was widely criticised for scaremongering. The NFU on the other hand wants to make sure that British farmers can grow profitable crops. Few would have a problem with that. But why does that require a defence of pesticides, rather than say bees, or worms – which really are crucial to food production and could be harmed by the very products the NFU seeks to defend.
The birds and the bees…and the worms.
Farmers rely on bees and other insect pollinators to produce many of our foods.
- It would cost farmers £1.8 billion a year to hand pollinate crops instead – this would certainly push food prices up.
- Wild bees are particularly good at pollinating some of our favourite fruits – wild pollinators add £37 million a year to the value of just two varieties of British apples Gala and Cox.
Our wild pollinators do most of the work and if we lose them we can’t simply draft in honey bees to do the job. A review of pollination services in 41 countries across Europe found that the UK only has a quarter of the honey bees it needs for pollination services.
There is strong evidence that some of the very pesticides that the NFU is so keen to keep using are harmful to bees. The decision to restrict the use of neonicotinoid insecticides to protect bees was based on a thorough review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Yet the NFU and pesticide companies bizarrely claim that there is “a lack of good science” demonstrating harm.
“Good science” surely includes the largest and longest global study into the effects and risks of systemic pesticides (including neonicotinoids). It examined over 800 scientific studies and concludes that neonicotinoids “are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial invertebrate species and are a key factor in the decline of bees”. The same study found that neonics and other insecticides are harming birds and earthworms – essential to a healthy productive soil
So why isn’t the NFU shouting about the threats to bees and earthworms – a healthy soil and pollination services are essential to the future of productive farming in the UK.
Safer alternatives needed
Of course farmers need to protect their crops. But where’s the “good science” behind the predictions of crop losses? In 25 June 2014, the NFU claimed on Farming Today, that oil seed rape was being devastated due to the restriction in the use of neonicotinoids. But Government figures have since shown that loss of oil seed rape crop to pests has been pretty normal at just 1.34 per cent.
And, not all farmers are complaining about the loss of pesticide products. Lincolnshire farmer Peter Lundgren said “Growers need to move on and concentrate on developing a sympathetic pesticide regime that both maintains adequate control of pests and also limits the impact on bees and beneficial insects.” Peter wants the Government and farming industry to concentrate on finding safe alternatives including crop varieties that are more resistant to attack, and farming methods that reduce the need for chemicals.
Who will the Government listen to?
In March 2014 the Government published a draft National Pollinator Strategy (NPS) in response to concerns from across the scientific community, businesses, farmers, civil society, politicians and the public for Britain’s declining bee populations.
The final NPS must tackle all causes of bee decline including habitat loss and disease as well as pesticides. But unless the NPS sets out a strong vision and robust measures for what happens on our farmland it will not be fit for purpose.
This has been a strong message from MPs. An Environmental Audit Committee report recently urged ministers to use the NPS to reduce reliance on pesticides to reduce harm to pollinators. The Government’s response failed to give any confidence that the NPS will do this. And, in a recent House of Commons debate on the NPS, the Minister’s response to MP’s concerns about pesticides was again weak and non-committal.
We are still waiting for the final NPS. In the words of Sarah Newton MP in the recent House of Commons debate “What do we want? We want the national pollinator strategy. When do we want it? We want it now”. Crucially, our bees need it now and it must be strong enough to protect them from all the causes of their decline including pesticide use.