Goulson Lab

Are crops being devastated without neonicotinoid protection?

Response to article by Matt Ridley in the Times, 6 October. Note that the Times refused to publish a (shorter) response that I sent to them:

To: letters@thetimes.co.uk

Dear Sir,

On 6 October, the Times published an opinion piece by Matt Ridley on the impacts of the neonicotinoid moratorium on farming. These insecticides are the subject of a partial 2 year ban introduced by the EU because of the perceived risk they pose to bees. Ridley asserts that oilseed rape crops are now being devastated because they are not being protected by these insecticides, claiming that in some regions up to 50% of the crop has been lost. He argues that there is “literally no good science linking neonics to bee deaths in fields” and that the moratorium only came about because “green lobby groups… have privileged and direct access to... European officials”. He goes on to claim that there is no evidence that bees are declining, and that they will be worse off if there is less oilseed rape for them to feed on as a result of the moratorium. He even sneaks in a quick go at badgers, suggesting that they may be the main problem that bumblebees face. In short, he says the moratorium is a typical barmy bit of EU legislation that is crippling farming for no good reason, no better than the apocryphal EU restrictions on the shape of bananas.


I’m one of the scientists who have been conducting this “no good” science, so you might not be surprised to hear that I have a rather different view of the situation. The EU decision was taken only after a team of scientists at the European Food Standard’s Agency had spent 6 months reviewing all the scientific evidence. They concluded that neonics pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees, and hence a majority of EU counties voted for the moratorium. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, came to the same conclusion, and urged our government to support the ban. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also concurred, and have banned use of all neonics on land they administer. Most recently, a team of 30 scientists, of which I was one, reviewed 800 papers on this topic and in a series of 8 articles published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, concluded that “The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity [of neonicotinoids] is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”.


These neurotoxins persist in soils for years, and they are now known to be found in hedgerow plants, streams and ponds. One teaspoon is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion honeybees (it would kill half of them, and leave the others feeling very unwell).  But they do not just pose a threat to bees; any insect living on farmland or in streams that flow from farmland, and any organisms that depend on insects for food (e.g. many birds and fish) are likely to be affected.


The backdrop to all this is that over the last 60 years arable farming has become highly dependent on a blizzard of chemical inputs. Many crops are treated with twenty or more pesticides each year, and grown in vast monocultures with minimal use of rotations and negligible attention paid to encouraging natural enemies that can help to control pests.

There is little space left for nature. As a result, European wildlife populations are collapsing. RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report summarizes the state of play, and it is bleak reading – most farmland wildlife groups for which we have data are overwhelmingly in decline. According to British Trust for Ornithology data, 44 million breeding birds vanished from the British countryside in the last decades of the 20th century.  


Conservation organizations are fighting a losing battle. To claim that they have “privileged” access to politicians is bizarre; never have green politics been so low on the agenda. It seems rather more plausible that those who profit from promoting intensive farming, particularly the agrochemical industry, are the ones with access to regulators and policy makers. Sales of neonics alone are worth $3billion pa, so that industry can afford to employ armies of lobbyists. Many EU countries have folded under pressure from industry and allowed farmers derogations to use neonics during the ban. Following the recent stories of oilseed rape losses in the UK, Defra have allowed farmers to spray different types of neonics onto their crops, while others have resorted to sprayed their rape seedlings up to 5 times with pyrethroid insecticides already this autumn, at the same time complaining that pyrethroids don’t work because the pests are resistant (so why use them?). In these circumstances the moratorium is worse than useless, but surely there is a better, more sustainable way forwards? We need to find ways to grow crops without damaging the environment. If rape cannot be grown in some areas without blitzing it with neurotoxins, then perhaps farmers should consider growing something else entirely? If they tried to wean themselves off their chemical dependency, introduced more diverse crop rotations, left small areas for wildlife, and tried to encourage natural enemies of their pests, they might find that their problems got better.


What of Ridley’s claim that oilseed rape crops are being wiped out because they are no longer protected by neonicotinoids? He is not the first to say this. In May, the NFU Vice President Guy Smith claimed on Farming Today that 70% of the Swedish spring oilseed rape crop had been wiped out by pests following the introduction of the neonic moratorium. This was wildly incorrect – when eventually official figures emerged, the yield was down just 5%. Two days ago Defra revealed official figures on the extent of the damage in the UK – 1.35% of the crop has been lost (http://www.hgca.com/press/2014/october/08/csfb-crop-losses-estimated-at-27-in-hgca-funded-%E2%80%98snapshot-assessment%E2%80%99.aspx). Note that some crops are lost every year, with or without neonics. So why would a senior politician (Matt Ridley is a tory Lord and brother-in-law to Owen Paterson) and VP of the NFU want to grossly exaggerate the damage, and hence by implication suggest that farmers cannot grow crops without neonics? This is not in the farmer’s best interests, or that of the environment, or that of consumers. One might be forgiven for wondering if they weren’t actually working for the agrochemical industry.


Finally, will bees suffer if farmers grow less oilseed rape because of the moratorium, as Ridley asserts? I doubt it. Bees need a steady supply of food through the year, not a four week spring glut followed by famine because there are few wildflowers. In any case, if you were offered a feast of food laced with a neurotoxin, or a more modest meal of unpoisoned food, which would you opt for? In a sense, that is the choice that we all face right now.


Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of the bestselling A Sting in the Taleand A Buzz in the Meadow, the latter describing the neonicotinoid controversy.