Why is the NFU Misleading Farmers and Government About Neonicotinoids?

Friday 11th July 2014

The NFU has retracted a number of misleading claims it has made about the impacts of the neonicotinoid ban on Oilseed rape yields, but continues to promulgate information that gives a misleading impression.  This is not in the best interest of farmers who need impartial advice and healthy pollinator populations – so why is the NFU taking this line?

Last week Buglife exposed misleading claims by the NFU that Swedish farmers had lost 70 per cent of spring Oil seed rape yields when in fact the change was in the area planted, there had been no significant pest problem or yield effect. NFU vice-president Guy Smith has now distanced the NFU from the yield claim tweeting “Farmers Guardian stuff should have read 'area' not 'yield'. I agree the word 'losses' would be better expressed as 'reduction'” and he tweeted BBC Farming Today saying “please note that reports I mentioned on your prog of 70% of the Swedish OSR crop being destroyed by flea beetle were wrong”.

Despite this admission the NFU website still states that “We have already seen evidence in the first spring without Neonicotinoids that reduced area and difficulty in controlling insect attack on seedlings has happened in the UK and in other countries around Europe such as Sweden who have reported loss of up to 70% of their national spring sown oilseed rape crop.  Crops that were planted, even in the lowest-risk situations, came under severe attack from insect pests.” 

Let’s be clear the Swedes have not lost their Oil seed rape crop, they either planted it in Autumn or planted an alternative crop, and claims that Oil seed rape crops are ‘under severe attack from insect pests’ appear to be unfounded.

Until yesterday the NFU website also stated that:-

“The HGCA estimate on average the loss of these Neonicotinoid in Oilseed rape can reduce yield by around 10%, however this average figures does not give the full picture and some crops are capable of being wiped out by flea beetle when the plants emerge.”

This figure appeared to be an order of magnitude higher than the HGCA estimates – 1% as set out in Nicholls (2013) or 0.5% as suggested by Clarke (2009).  Buglife flagged this up to the HGCA (the cereals and oilseeds division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board).  The HGCA confirmed that the figure of 10% was indeed incorrect and was not a figure published by HGCA and they asked the NFU to correct the figure.Spraying Oilseed rape (c) David Wright

The NFU website was amended and now says “HGCA research on the implications of the restrictions on Neonicotinoids in oilseed rape states that without insecticides the average yield loss to TuYV is 15 per cent although yield losses of up to 30 per cent can occur.”

Wait…..read that last sentence again……Do you still think that the HGCA are predicting that the removal of neonicotinoids from Oil seed rape means that there will be an average loss of yield of 15% and a maximum of 30%?  Clever isn’t it.  Read it more carefully.  What it actually says is that in a report that discussed the implications of the neonicotinoid ban the HGCA estimated that if there were no pesticides at all there would be an average loss of yield of 15% and a maximum of 30%.  Of course there are other pesticides available whose primary purpose is to control aphids and reduce the spread of the virus TuYV – so the loss, if any, resulting from the neonicotinoid ban will be nothing like 15%. 

Indeed it is unlikely that neonicotinoid seed treatments ever had a significant effect on aphid and Turnip yellows virus control.  There is published (if not peer reviewed) evidence that they do not restrict virus transmission “field trial results did not suggest differential control of the two viruses causing yellows” Dewar 1992. Also Bluett and Birch (1992) observed no yield improvements eight trials at field realistic treatment rates in spring barley and winter wheat.  I am not aware of any published evidence that neonicotinoids are effective at controlling aphids or plant viruses.

The NFU appears to be trying it’s hardest to scare farmers into not planting Oil seed rape and mislead decision makers into overturning the neonicotinoid ban. 

Back in reality everything is looking rosy for this year’s yield with a record harvest predicted across the EU, and in the UK the neonicotinoid ban has not reduced sales of Oil seed rape seeds for next year’s crop.  Speaking to Farmers Weekly Pete Berry, oilseed rape expert at ADAS said “The yield potential should be high”. While David Leaper, arable technical manager at Openfield stated “We are seeing no evidence that growers are being put off oilseed rape.”

This leaves one with a nagging question.  Why is the NFU twisting the facts around corners to try to present a case that neonicotinoids must be reapproved?  Is it in the interests of farmers when the benefits of using neonicotinoids are so uncertain?  Even using the estimates in Clarke (2009) the cost of applying the neonicotinoid is twice as high as the average cost in terms of loss of yield.  Is it in the interest of farmers to put in jeopardy £510 million worth of pollination services for a possible couple of million pounds of yeild benefits?

In November 2012 at the Pollinators and Pesticides Inquiry Zac Goldsmith MP said in exasperation “Increasingly, NFU seems to be national agribusiness union and not National Farmers Union”.

Meanwhile, in other news, new research from the Netherlands has revealed a robust link between neonicotinoid pollution and declines in bird numbers.

Bluett, D. J. & Birch, A. (1992) Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) control with imidacloprid seed treatment in the United Kingdom. Pflanzenschutz-Nachrichten Bayer (German edition) 45:455–490

Clarke J, Wynn S, Twining S, Berry P, Cook S, Ellis S, Gladders P (2009) Pesticide availability for cereals and oilseeds following revision of Directive 91/414/EEC; effects of losses and new research priorities. HGCA Research Review No. 70

Dewar, A. M. (1992) The effects of imidacloprid on aphids and virus yellows in sugar beet. Pflanzenschutz-Nachrichten Bayer (German edition) 45:423–44

Nicholls CJ, (2013) Implications of the restriction on the neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam on crop protection in oilseeds and cereals in the UK. HGCA. Research Review No. 77.