As concerns around bees and neonicotinoid insecticides have risen up the agenda and attracted increasing levels of media coverage, they've also attracted more environmental NGO's, keen to get their share of column inches on the back of this issue. If quizzed about neonicotinoids, what can growers say?
The internet and social media is being heavily used by campaigning organisations to rally concerned members of the pubic to put pressure on Government and now on retailers. This pressure is now being felt in the ornamental horticulture and gardening sector. Already we have seen B&Q, Homebase, Wickes and many garden centres taken action to remove some amateur bug killers containing neonicotinoids from their shelves.
In addition to this public pressure, the current proposal of the European Commission to ban the use of three neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam - could have much more fundamental impacts on whether or not products containing these chemicals were available at all to use within the EU. It is not yet clear whether the proposed bans would extend to uses on ornamental crops, but considering the Commission’s approach to date has been very broad-brush, we would expect such uses might well be included.
The Commission is set to discuss its proposal with member state experts at a meeting in mid-March, and if it feels the cards are stacked in its favour, it could put the proposal to a vote then. If not, the vote would be taken to the next meeting towards the end of April.
If you read the national newspaper articles on this issue you'd be forgiven for thinking this is all about a battle for bee health being fought between massive multi-national chemical companies, who make these neonicotinoids, and the environmental NGO's, who are fighting to save bees from a pesticidal apocalypse. It's not. This issue is about science and evidence, and whether or not we can use it in an appropriate and balanced way to tackle the significant problems challenges facing bees really benefit bee health.
So, if you are a grower, what can you say to your retail customer if they ask you about the use of neonicotinoids?
Firstly, explain that like everyone else we understand that honeybees, wild bees and other pollinating insects are clearly a hugely important and valuable part of the environment, not just in terms of the pollination job they do in the wider countryside, but also the pollination job they do for agricultural and horticultural crops and plants in gardens, parks and other landscapes. It is right that we take measures to protect bees, but as with all things, the steps we take need to be proportionate to any problem we may face, and we should be confident that when we make changes, these changes will actually deliver benefits.
It is widely acknowledged that bee populations are facing widespread declines and that there are many factors challenging bees, including pests and disease, loss of habitat, climate issues, and chemicals in their environment (including the chemicals beekeepers use themselves to control pests and disease, as well as agricultural pesticides). While the current consensus of scientific opinion highlights pests and disease as a key factor challenging honeybees, and loss of habitat as the key factor challenging wild insect pollinators, it is widely accepted that the challenges facing bees are 'multifactorial’ and the evidence is not there to enable us to single out any one of these factors and say ‘X’ is causing declines in bee populations.
Growers are also committed to protecting the environment, and within their businesses they have processes in place to ensure that environmental protection happens. In terms of using pesticides, this is strictly regulated and by law growers are only permitted to use chemicals that are approved for use on the crops they grow. And when they use these pesticides they have to follow application instructions and recommendations carefully, and there are strict procedures in place to audit this process. Those who actually apply crop protection chemicals also have to be fully trained and qualified to do so, and they undergo continuing professional development on this.
Secondly, explain that it is right that we are open-minded about the results of new science and we need to be prepared to change the way we do things. Our understanding of the current bees and neonicotinoids issue is that while there is research showing that dosing bees with neonicotinoids in the lab has a range of harmful impacts on the behaviour and life-cycles of bees, it is not so clear whether bees are actually encountering these kind of doses under real-life field conditions, and there is a lack of evidence that shows, of the many factors challenging bees, it is neonicotinoids that are responsible for causing the widespread declines in pollinator populations.
The research on impacts of neonicotinoids on bees has been done on major field crops like oilseed rape. We are not aware of any research that has been done on ornamental plants.
The position of the UK Government and organisations like the NFU has basically followed this line – there has been a lot of research into the effect of neonicotinoids on bees, but crucially we still don’t really know what impact they are having in real-life field situations, and whether that impact is the cause of declines in bees populations. And without that evidence, Government has taken the position that the justification is not there for it to take action to restrict the use of neonicotinoids.
Despite what is reported in the media, no country in Europe has banned the use of all neonicotinoids. What a few countries (Italy, Slovenia, Germany, France) have done is restrict specific uses of neonicotinoids on specific crops.
Finally, if you use neonicotinoids, explain why you do and what you would do if they weren't available. What effects would the loss of neonicotinoids have on your ability control crop pests and the way you produce crops?
Only five neonicotinoids are currently registered for use in the UK – imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid and thiacloprid. The first three (the focus of the Commission’s current proposal) are more toxic to bees than the last two. Thiacloprid is considered of low enough risk to bees that it is widely used in Integrated Pest Management strategies where populations of beneficial insects need to be conserved, and it can be applied as a spray when crops are in flower.
The NFU is concerned that if neonicotinoids were banned, the effects would be far reaching and aren’t fully understood. While the alternative pesticides to neonicotinoids are all approved products, they all have their own environmental impacts – on bees, beneficial insects or water courses. Just as we do not have the evidence to pin the widespread decline of bee populations on neonicotinoids, we do not fully understand what the impacts of switching to the alternatives would be. Without good evidence, the real risk is that we make a change that does nothing to measurably improve the bee health situation, but does have costs and unintended consequences.
This article was written by Dr Chris Hartfield, NFU lead on bee health issues