Safe from harmful chemicals

No Insectinction – how to solve the insect declines crisis

Safe spaces for insects

Safe from harmful chemicals

Recent history is peppered with cases of pesticides causing huge damage to wildlife, most recently pollinator declines caused by neonicotinoid insecticides, but also cypermethrin sheep dip, which ravaged freshwater systems and may have caused the extinction of a rare caddisfly species. By improving pre-approval testing and being much more careful and prudent about their use we can reduce the damage these chemicals cause to ecosystems and wildlife. Currently there are over four hundred pesticides approved for use in the EU. Since the approval process started in 1991, over a hundred products have been banned due to their detrimental effect on the environment or human health, despite being, until very recently, deemed safe and used extensively. This shows that the current testing procedure for approval is inadequate, again demonstrated by the EU introducing a ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in 2018.

There are numerous issues surrounding the pesticide testing procedure, including the limited taxonomic scope of testing, and no account being taken of the ‘cocktail’ effect where pesticides can have more dramatic effects when working in combination. Detrimental effects that become apparent after a pesticide is approved are not taken into account quickly enough and when environmental impacts of pesticides, and other chemicals, are called into question, the precautionary principle must be applied, and their use suspended. There is too much emphasis on proving harm, rather than the onus being on the chemical companies to prove that they are safe. Pre-approval studies on the toxicity of new pesticides must be made publicly available and should be scientifically robust so that the statistical significance of the results can be relied upon.
While it is illegal for financial advisors to profit from selling products to individuals, agronomy advisors and the companies they work for are still allowed to benefit from commission or sales that arise from their advice to use pesticides. It is well-established that this form of marketing is highly effective at selling products that are either not needed or should be substituted with better approaches 10. The effect is to strongly bias the advice given to farmers towards chemical solutions and away from agroecology solutions. France has committed to break this link.

Gardens and urban green-space have become refuges for many bees and other insects; the use of insecticides in gardens cannot be justified on food production or other public good grounds and should be banned.

Plant-protection pesticides are not the only chemicals that can harm invertebrate populations; there are also significant risks from veterinary and human medicines. There is relatively little vigilance or targeted regulation to protect wildlife from medicines.

Pollution is a particular problem for water quality, despite the introduction of legislation such as the Water Framework Directive in Europe. Almost half of sites monitored across Europe continue to suffer from chronic chemical pollution leading to long-term negative impacts on freshwater organisms . One in ten sites suffered acute pollution with potential lethal impacts for freshwater organisms 11. Harmful chemicals, nutrients and plastic fragments are emitted in sewage effluent and run-off from urban and industrial areas, with pesticides from farmland posing the most immediate risk to freshwater ecosystems

We can stop, and reverse the global declines in our insects, but only if everyone pulls together to do their bit.

Small steps can have a huge impact if they all fall at the same time Five things you can do to reverse insect declines

(c) Paul Evans

What has to happen?

  • Robustness of the pesticide approval ‘test methods’ must be improved and a stronger evidence base developed for a wider range of beneficial insect species.
  • As part of a review of pesticide uses, the UK must initiate a full assessment of the environmental risks posed by pesticides to bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies, moths, and other insects, but also to groups such as earthworms, beetles, snails and aquatic invertebrates through residues in soil and in aquatic habitats. The assessment must enable the application of the precautionary principle.
  • The link between advice to farmers and pesticide profits must be broken. Farmers deserve truly independent advice from people who are just as motivated and trained in non-chemical and ecological approaches to managing land for the joint outcomes of producing food and conserving biodiversity.
  • Domestic pesticide use and municipal use by Local Authorities must be banned.
  • More monitoring of veterinary and human medicines needs to be introduced; more substantive responses to environmental risks need to be initiated; and a greater role for environmental risk assessment introduced into the approval process for these potentially very harmful substances.
  • Water quality must be improved – with reductions in the levels of nutrients, plastic and harmful chemicals.
  • Harm from pesticides is a global issue that would benefit from an international convention to establish the principles of protection for people and wildlife, to promote greater transparency, to achieve more protective regulation, and to ensure that pesticide harm is not simply exported from countries with sophisticated regulation to less fortunate countries.

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