The international taskforce on systemic pesticides – a group of global, independent scientists including Professor Dave Goulson at Sussex University – has spent four years analysing all the peer reviewed studies on neonics and fipronil and has today concluded that there is clear evidence of serious harm to honeybees and other pollinators worldwide as well as earthworms and birds. There’s a good video of their findings here.
Neonics are the most widely used group of insecticides globally, with a 40% market share and sales worth more than US $2.63bn in 2011. They include imidacloprid which is also used in domestic treatments to prevent fleas in cats.
Alarm bells were first raised about this new class of pesticide 20 years ago when French beekeepers accused Bayer’s seed dressing for sunflowers, sold as Gaucho, of killing their bees. Ever since the industry has been denying the harmful effects of its products on bees, claiming that every independent piece of research is flawed in some way or another; lab tests feed too high a concentration of the pesticide to the bees; field tests have too many other variables so you can’t pin higher bee mortality on their products.
When we were researching A World without Bees to try to get to the bottom of what was causing the huge collapse of honeybee colonies in the US in 2007 and 2008, we found time and again that the relevant tests hadn’t been done by the regulatory authorities to determine the real risks the neonics posed to honeybees. So it was impossible to say that they were safe. Yet they were being licensed all over the world and sold in their millions. Until the tests were done we argued that we needed a worldwide ban, using the precautionary principle. Last year, the EU introduced a two year ban and just last week President Obama set up a task force charged with saving bees from mysterious decline which could well lead to a temporary suspension while better tests are undertaken.
The US have been looking into bee die offs since they were first reported on a massive scale seven years ago. Beekeepers pointed the finger at the neonics straight away but the US department of agricultural didn’t want to know. It blamed poor beekeeping, parasites, such as the varroa mite, and poor nutrition. All of these play a major part in bee health, but the role of pesticides should not be underestimated.
Response from the pesticide manufacturers to the latest report, called the Worldwide Integrated Assessment report on the use of neonics and fipronil, is entirely predictable. It fails to acknowledge the report on its website. But Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the industry lobby, the Crop Protection Agency, told the Guardian: “It is a selective review of existing studies which highlighted worst-case scenarios, largely produced under laboratory conditions. As such, the publication does not represent a robust assessment of the safety of systemic pesticides under realistic conditions of use.”
He added: “Importantly, they have failed or neglected to look at the broad benefits provided by this technology and the fact that by maximising yields from land already under cultivation, more wild spaces are preserved for biodiversity. The crop protection industry takes its responsibility towards pollinators seriously. We recognise the vital role pollinators play in global food production.”