Ban neonicotinoids now – to avert another silent spring

July 16, 2014

in Bumblebees and their ecology, Gardening For Wildlife, Nature, health and well being, Red mason solitary bees

Ban neonicotinoids now – to avert another silent spring

This pesticide is destroying life across the natural world: the evidence cannot be denied. Only a global moratorium will stop it

George Monbiot 

 The Guardian, Tuesday 15 July 2014 20.27 BST

DDT being sprayed in the USA

A plane spraying alfalfa fields in the US with DDT. ‘President Kennedy launched a commission to investigate the pesticide. Within 10 years it was banned. Compare this with the British response to attempts to control neonicotinoids.’ Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Here’s our choice. We wait and see if a class of powerful pesticides, made by Bayer and Syngenta, is indeed pushing entire ecosystems to oblivion, or suspend their use while proper trials are conducted. The natural world versus two chemical companies: how hard can this be?

Papers published over the past few weeks suggest that these neonicotinoids, pesticides implicated in killing or disabling bees, have similar effects on much of life on Earth. On land and in water, these neurotoxins appear to be degrading entire food chains. Licensed before sufficient tests were conducted, they are now the world’s most widely used pesticides. We are just beginning to understand what we’ve walked into.

A paper in Nature last week showed a strong correlation between neonicotinoid concentrations and the decline of birds such as swallows, skylarks, yellowhammers, wagtails, starlings and whitethroats. It couldn’t demonstrate causation, but it was elegantly designed to exclude competing factors. The precipitous loss of insects caused by neonicotinoids is the simplest and most obvious explanation, as all these birds depend on insects to feed their young. Where the chemical was heavily used, bird populations fell by 3.5% a year; where it was not, they held up. At this rate, it doesn’t take long to engineer a world without song.

Another paper reports that residues of neonicotinoids were found in all the soil samples the researchers took: these chemicals are highly persistent. Sold to farmers as precise and targeted, they are some of the least discriminate pesticides ever produced. When used to treat seeds, just 5% is absorbed by the plant; the rest soaks into the soil, with potentially lethal impacts on the animals that maintain its structure and fertility.

They are also water soluble. Recent papers suggest a collapse in the diversity and abundance of invertebrates in water running off farms where neonicotinoids are used. Mayflies and caddis flies, essential to the survival of many aquatic ecosystems, are especially vulnerable.

Another new paper provides compelling evidence linking these chemicals to colony collapse disorder: the sudden disappearance of honey bee colonies that’s now trashing the livelihoods of beekeepers in the US. Half the colonies exposed to neonicotinoids disappeared in the course of one winter; none of the untreated swarms vanished.

Worldwide contamination, indiscriminately wiping out wild animals, including those on which farming depends: these are the findings of an analysis of 800 scientific papers, also just published. How much more obvious does the case for action need to be?

Sure, there is plenty that we don’t yet know. We know almost nothing about the long-term, cumulative effects of these chemicals, or about what neonicotinoids do to birds that eat contaminated seeds, to mammal and amphibian populations, to coral reefs or marine life of any kind. Governments went into it blind, approving neonicotinoids before they had even a fraction of the necessary knowledge.

Far from being essential to food production, these pesticides are a serious threat to food supplies, through their likely impacts on bees and soil animals. They are well designed for lazy farming, but their advantages vanish in the face of more sophisticated methods such as integrated pest management. The only sensible response to the little we know so far is a global moratorium pending further research for all purposes except the control of human diseases.

In August 1962, after extracts from Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring were published, President Kennedy launched a commission to investigate the impacts of the pesticide DDT. Within 10 years it was banned from use in the US, except for public health emergencies.

This was despite lawsuits and a massive lobbying and disinformation campaign by the chemicals industry. Alongside the usual accusations of hysteria and other alleged female pathologies, it suggested that Carson was seeking to destroy US farming on behalf of the Soviet Union. The smears continue to this day. Corporate front groups concocted a myth that DDT was banned worldwide as a result of Carson’s book, causing the deaths of millions through malaria. In fact the DDT ban (still in place through the Stockholm convention) is for agricultural purposes but not disease control. DDT would soon have become useless against malaria had it continued to be used by farmers: the wider their exposure, the more quickly mosquitoes become resistant. Kennedy and his successors held firm.

Compare this with the British government’s response to attempts to control neonicotinoids. It threw everything it had against an EU proposal to suspend their use on flowering crops. Owen Paterson, the worst environment secretary this country has ever suffered – who was struck down by the Curse of Monbiot on Monday night in the cabinet reshuffle – wrote privately to Syngenta to reassure the company that “our efforts [to stop the suspension] will continue and intensify in the coming days”. His department commissioned a study claiming to show that bees were not being harmed. It was so flawed that no journal would take it. The lead author soon left to work for Syngenta.

The government’s chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, made wildly misleading statements about the science and used scare tactics and emotional blackmail to try to keep the pesticides in circulation. Fortunately the government’s campaign failed, and a two-year moratorium, though limited only to certain flowering crops, came into force across the EU in December 2013.

The case for a global moratorium is just as strong, so once more the government weighs in on the wrong side. Ian Boyd, chief scientist at the environment department, sought last week to dismiss the new Nature paper. His article was so slapdash that he couldn’t even get the lead author’s name right. He insisted that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions. So did he announce a massive research programme to resolve the uncertainties? Did he hell. Uncertainty suits these people, and they will exploit it as ruthlessly as they can.

Will Liz Truss, the new environment secretary, champion science, not chemical companies? I would love to believe that there might be a remaining glimmer of recognition that governments exist to protect us from exploitation and destruction. Kennedy knew it, for all his faults. Like him, our politicians have a clear choice: surrender to corporate bullies or defend the living world. What will they do?

Twitter: @georgemonbiot

A fully referenced version of this article can be found at

Don’t forget to check your bee friendly plants are not contaminated with neonics!

Are neonics the new DDT?

Original article copied, pasted from here

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Vikki Fox July 16, 2014 at 7:54 am

I wrote to the RHS recently to ask whether their bee friendly plants are free from neonicotinoids. This was the response from their Senior Entomologist…

The presence of neonicotinoids in plants sold in plant centres is largely confined to North America, where the use of these products is more widespread than in Europe. In addition the three active ingredients (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) considered most likely to cause harm to pollinators were withdrawn (effectively banned) from sale in 2013 and should not be present in plants sold in plant centres anywhere in Europe. There should be no problem with seed dressings on ornamental plants as these are generally only used in the production of commercial crops such as oil seed rape and food crops. Thus there should be no problem with plants on sale and toxicity to bees. However, it can be impossible to absolutely guarantee plants are free from pesticides at the point of sale. Most plant centres in the UK source plants from external growers. The supply chain is fairly long and information on pesticides used in production do not often follow the plants. It is also possible to inspect the label, many plants are often labelled as pesticide free or as organic these will obviously be free of pesticides.

I dearly hope the government realises the danger of allowing the use of these chemicals. But they seem to be more interested in bowing to these large corporations instead 🙁


nurturingnature July 16, 2014 at 8:26 am

Very interesting Vikki and thanks so much for letting me know. I MAY do a list of bee friendly plant sellers on this web site….surprisingly enough some I have asked have not bothered to reply, one had never heard of neonic AND they sell and openly advertise selling bee friendly plants and others I am still awaiting replies. Thanks again,



Marian July 22, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Very worrying reading. We were only talking about the serious decline in the martins and swallows this year. In Past years the swallows in particular used to be in abundance here where we are. Also noticed a serious lack of moths, and butterflies, amd I still hav’nt seen a single ladybird this year. My garden is completely free from any chemical spraying and other than purchasing a willow early in the Spring which was clearly labelled bee friendly I hav’nt bought any new plants for a few years. I try to take cuttings where possible, I am just now wondering about the pack of bee friendly seeds I scattered, which have grown beautifully, lots of colourful open flowers the bees have been more than happy. Leaf cutters in particular making plenty of cut outs in the assortment of leaves. Seem to have more leaf cutters this year which is good.
After a trip to Dorset at the weekend, about 100 miles from us in Devon, I purposely looked at the front of the car after coming home and reading your article, hardly any insects on the windscreen and front of car.
Start a campaign George!!


nurturingnature July 22, 2014 at 5:31 pm

I’ve started Marian….. Keep you posted!!


Ann Spencer-Wyatt July 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Hi George,
My husband and I were having the same conversation about the lack of insects on our windscreen as we travelled from the Midlands down to Folkestone at the end of last week. Once in the french side of the channel and within a very short time we were again saying about the amount of insects on the windscreen of our car…….loads!! The difference was astounding!! What does that say about the french countryside I wonder?
Would also like to be kept in the loop with regards to your campaign George.
Ann Spencer-Wyatt


nurturingnature July 22, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Hi Ann, If my memory serves me right, the French bee keepers campaigned against neons publicly and I think they suspended them before the EU….

Will do re campaign…cheers, George


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