On pesticides we must let science lead the way

There is a big battle brewing in fields up and down Europe. It is the culmination of a battle that has been going on for many years and is set to reach its climax this summer.

At its heart is a debate between pesticides and their potential effects on bees. 

Now bees are vitally important - virtually all productive crops rely on bees for pollination. Without them there are genuine questions over whether our civilisation could survive. 

However, bee populations have been facing trouble, there have been unexplained deaths of entire colonies of bees, so-called colony collapse disorder (CCD) and some are placing the blame on pesticides, and specifically on a range of modern pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are a key tool in food production. 

Now, in a case study of how the EU really works, the EU is involved and is threatening to ban these pesticides. The story started several years ago in France, when the government there, keen to keep the green support to prop up the government, agreed to the green demand to ban three neonicotinoids, citing several arguments (not backed up by scientific evidence) that they affect bee populations.

Very quickly French farmers became uncompetitive in the European single market against farmers in countries that still used these chemicals, and so the French government lobbied the European Commission to make the ban an EU ban. The Commission, which at the time contained an Agriculture Commissioner schooled in France, quickly agreed to the ban and in 2013 a temporary ban was put in place on those three neonicotinoids. 

The evolution of this ban has very little to do with science or with protecting bees and a lot to do with political coalition building in France. 

The Commission is now facing a decision on whether to continue the existing ban. But they have gone further, and draft proposals from the European Commission recommend introducing a complete ban on many more neonicotinoids, including the world’s most widely used insecticides.

Such a ban could be in place this year if the proposals are approved by a majority of EU member states.

This proposed ban makes no sense for many reasons; notably because it will substantially raise the cost of food but also because food produced from outside the EU using these pesticides will still be allowed into the EU, completely undercutting our farmers and putting their livelihoods in peril as they will not be on a level playing field. However, the biggest reason why this proposal lacks any rational reasoning is because there is no actual evidence that neonicotinoids pose any threat to bees at all.

Bee Colony Collapse Disorder has been around for many years. In fact, many cases were recorded before pesticides even existed. Recent studies have demonstrated that declines amongst wild bees are driven mostly by land use changes, habitat loss, climate change, viruses and diseases and have not increased since neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s. After almost 20 years of research there has been no evidence that neonicotinoids pose any threat to bee colonies. 

It is worth highlighting the fact that neonicotinoids are the latest and most modern pesticides. They are more effective and less harmful to the environment than previous generations and they also can be used in far smaller quantities.

Yet if the EU bans them, farmers will have to use the older, less environmentally friendly insecticides which have also been proven to be far less effective in their main job: keeping pests off crops.

Indeed, an internal report by the Commission’s own Joint Research Centre (JRC) cites that there is evidence the current EU ban on neonicotinoids “has been disastrously counterproductive”.

Expanding the ban would have significant and irreversible damage to many agricultural sectors in Europe such as sugar beet, potatoes, cereals as well as fruit and vegetables. For our farmers to produce the food we need in a sustainable and resource-efficient way, they need to have all the tools at their disposal, including pesticides.

In Britain, for example, the JRC study finds that farmers have more than quadrupled the number of insecticide applications on oil-seed rape, but seen pest pressure increase. In France, 30 per cent of farmers reported an increase in pest pressure while none reported a significant change in beneficial insect population.

Agricultural science institute Rothamsted Research has warned that the production of UK crops is at risk if the EU proposal to widen the ban is implemented.

“If groups of chemistries are limited by legislation, the remaining groups will be more widely used, resulting in an increased use of pests developing resistance to them,’ it says. “It will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain production of many crops”.

Rothamsted Research cites that in sugar beet, the control of aphids and the virus diseases they spread is totally reliant on neonicotinoid seed treatments because the aphids are resistant to other controls. It suggests the current ban has cost the European oilseed rape farming industry 900 million Euros a year. And critically, it laments any lack of evidence for the pesticide restrictions reiterating its call in 2014 for a “proper science-led assessment”.

What’s clear is this: the evidence base for the ban on neonicotinoids is woefully lacking. It’s irresponsible, scaremongering and destructive in every possible sense. And Imposing a ban based on an unproven, theoretical risks carries serious and severe implications for all of us.