The Drugs (Neonicotinoids) Don’t Work

Friday 28th March 2014

For over 20 years Neonicotinoid pesticides have been pushed onto British farmers by the agrochemical industry, becoming the most abundantly used insecticides. We already know they are a high risk to bees and are polluting freshwater ecosystems. Now there is increasing evidence that they don’t actually work. The commission based selling system that rewards the middlemen is exploiting farmers; the regulators must protect them and the environment.

When the European Commission introduced the current two year ban on many uses of neonicotinoids the agrochemical industry was encouraged to present new evidence to show that the use of these toxins could be compatible with protecting populations of bees and other pollinators – whose work is worth £18 billion a year to EU agriculture. In the lead up to the ban the agrochemical industry was up in arms and claimed that it would cost £230 per hectare of oil seed rape and £225 per hectare of wheat. In the UK this would mean an economic loss of £620 million, more than the £510 million value of UK pollination (although unlike pesticides pollinators are free).

It is now becoming apparent that not only were the claimed costs of the ban exaggerated, it is questionable if neonicotinoids provide any overall increase in yields.

We know that trusting people who are concerned about their health will buy snake oil if it is proffered by an undiscerning salesman. This is why providing inducements to doctors to prescribe certain drugs is against the Code of Conduct and why in 2012 commission selling of financial policies was outlawed. It is now time to stop this corrupting practice from causing further damage to our precious ecosystems and our ability to feed ourselves from the land.

The interesting case of the Pollen beetle

In 2012 when Buglife gave evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the impacts of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators we highlighted concerns about the economic case for using neonicotinoids. We drew attention particularly to a Thiocloprid spray called Biscaya, marketed by Bayer to control pollen beetles.

The pollen beetle is a little black beetle that feeds on pollen and in doing so helps to pollinate flowers. However if it arrives on Oil seed rape before the buds have burst it will chew the buds. This looks damaging, but it has long been known that the plants are capable of simply replacing buds damaged by Pollen beetles. It takes a vast number of pollen beetles to have any effect on yields.

ADAS provides recommendations about the levels of pests that should trigger pesticide use.  For pollen beetles this was set at 3 beetles per plant for spring Oil seed rape and 15 beetles for winter Oil seed rape. However a review by ADAS in 2009 showed that in 21 years the average density of pollen beetles never exceeded 15 beetles and only exceeded 5 beetles in four of the years.  The highest numbers of pollen beetles was in 2004, when under 15% of area of oil seed rape exceeded the threshold. Despite this, Oil seed rape was being sprayed with insecticides on average 1.5 times every year.

In 2013 ADAS introduced new thresholds, raising them to 7 beetles per plant in high density crops and 30 per plant in low density crops – which in effect means that spraying for pollen beetles is almost never justified.

It would appear that Bayer have yet to update their website with the new thresholds, they still quote the old ones.

Scientific review finds that neonics don’t pay

‘Heavy Costs’ A review of scientific studies, published this week by the Centre for Food Safety in the USA, has found that neonicotinoids only rarely increase the yields of treated crops and even when they do, the increase in yield does not usually compensate the cost of the pesticide.

This is perhaps not as surprising as it first seems, the UK Millennium Ecosystem Assessment contains a graph that shows that the introduction of neonicotinoids did not significantly increase Oil seed rape yields. Also we have seen official neonicotinoid product authorisation documents, produced by the pesticide manufacturers, which include studies where the untreated control plot had higher yields than the insecticide treatment plot.

It also explains why despite soaring sales of neonicotinoids the sales of other insecticides have not dropped.

Lincolnshire farmer increases profits by stopping using neonicotinoids  Peter Lundgren, a Lincolnshire farmer, stopped using neonics in 2012 and found that as a result he lost £2 to £20 per ha on Oil seed rape, but made £13 more per ha more on Wheat. If the same pattern is found nationally then rather than costing UK agriculture £620 million, the ban will increase profits by £28 million!

Peter has worked with the Friends of the Earth to produce a report about his experience of coming off neonicotinoids.

How has this happened?

Neoniotinoids are mostly used as seed dressings so they are an insurance against insect damage not a treatment for insect damage. In most years the numbers of insects don’t reach pest levels and if they do so late in the year then then the neonicotinoids may no longer be of a high enough concentration in the plant to be an effective protector.  Meanwhile it is likely that the neonicotinoids are damaging the natural agricultural ecosystem destroying the predators and parasitoids that would otherwise have kept the numbers of herbivores in check.

Pest control is best done by informed and aware farmers monitoring the levels of pests in their crops and applying the most specific solution when a developing problem is detected. This is called Integrated Pest Management, but it is simply not compatible with the use of systemic, seed treatment, pesticides like neonicotinoids.

The agrochemical industry has hoodwinked farmers into a neonicotinoid addiction using clever marketing that preys on the fears of farmers, and commission based payments to agronomists who act as the middle men to convince farmers to buy neonicotinoids.

It will be interesting to see if the NFU changes their unquestioning defence of neonicotinoid pesticides now it is becoming apparent that they are more of a cost, than a benefit, to their members.

How can we stop the exploitation of farmers?

In terms of the regulation of pesticides, their economic efficiency is particularly significant.  The Plant Protection Product Directive is clear that only pesticides that “shall be sufficiently effective” and “shall have no unacceptable effects on the environment” should be authorised for use. Neonicotinoids fail both tests.

Because of the harm that pesticides are causing the environment, damaging yields and profits, it is essential that the authorities take their protective duties much more seriously.  Authorisation must be tightened up effectiveness and environmental safety being established before the pesticides are released.

Commission selling is a form of pushing and has been banned from the sale of financial policies and the prescription of drugs. Commission sales of agricultural pesticides is a particularly insidious form of the practice as the relationship between a farmer and his/her agronomist is often a very close one. The time has come to ban commission selling of pesticides.