Do we need neonicotinoids to grow crops? by Prof. Dave Goulson

September 9, 2015

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

Where are the insects on my car windscreen?

Do you remember the days when you used to drive your car in the countryside during the summer and upon returning found the windscreen and front grill splattered with insects? They could be a real pain to clean from your car. As they years went by, I noticed less and less dead splattered insects. Mike McCarthy, former environment editor of the Independent, has noticed the same thing – he has even written a book about it, The Moth Snowstorm. In 2003, Dr. George McGavin (now a well respected TV presenter doing wonderful discovery journeys into the jungles!) said ” “Anecdotal evidence pointing to the decline of British insects abounds,” said Dr George McGavin, acting curator of entomology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. “Most people over the age of 50 talk of seeing many more species of moths, butterflies and other insects when they were children.”  Later, the RSPB designed the ‘Splatometer’ and after testing it at Sandy, their HQ, asked the public to participate. The story taken up by the BBC had the headline ‘Splatometer’ to count bug life. According to the Independent 40,00 people took part in 2004. By then this decline was well underway. Now, when I drive in the countryside my vehicle is mostly clean of dead insects. What is causing the decline of insects in the countryside and therfore depriving many insectivorous birds of their food. Is it small wonder farmland birds are in decline?  The BTO are investigating. this very aspect. George Pilkington

Is Rachel Carson right?

Is Rachel Carson right?

Do we need neonicotinoids to grow crop? By Prof. Dave Goulson

Modern intensive farming relies on use of a blizzard of pesticides – twenty or more insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and molluscicides are applied on average to each arable crop, and far more in horticulture. Many of us are gravely concerned as to the long term effects of this chemical dependency on the environment and ourselves. One particular group of chemicals have become the focus of much media attention in recent years – the neonicotinoids. These neurotoxins are phenomenally toxic to bees and other beneficial insects, and are persistent in the environment.  We are currently in the second year of an EU-wide moratorium on their use on flowering crops, which came about because of a growing body of scientific evidence that they were doing significant harm to both managed honeybees and wild bees such as bumblebees.

Huge loss of money and huge job losses

In the run up to the 2013 vote on this moratorium, the agrochemical industry produced glossy documents declaring that, if passed, there would be massive reductions in crop yields, huge job losses in the agriculture sector, etc. etc. You can read and download one such report:  The value of Neonicotinoids seed treatment in the European Union

This tells us that, if the moratorium were to go ahead, “the EU could lose 17 billion EUR and more; 50 thousand jobs could get lost economy-wide; and more than a million people.. would certainly suffer..”. They wanted us to believe that farmers couldn’t grow crops without these chemicals.

Higher yields

As you probably know, the moratorium went ahead, though the UK voted against it, presumably won over by such arguments. Now we are in the second year of the moratorium, we can start to evaluate whether this was true. Annual spring-sown crops that were sown in 2014 without neonics (primarily sunflower and maize) have now been harvested. And the yields? Across the EU, which includes regions with a broad range of climates, yields were HIGHER that the five year average, in some regions more than 25% higher, Crop Monitoring in Europe, Dec. 2014 Bulletin. Whatever happened to the crop devastation predicted by industry? It now starts to look like a lot of hot air, although we shouldn’t base too much on data from one year.


UK Debate

The debate in the UK has heavily focussed on oilseed rape, which is mainly an autumn-sown crop in Britain, so the first crop without neonics wasn’t sown until August 2014, and the harvest has only just been gathered. In May 2014, 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. On 6 October 2014, the Times published an opinion piece by Matt Ridley (a Conservative member of the House of Lords), in which he asserts that “all across the south of England, [oilseed rape] crops are being devastated” without neonic protection. He suggested that in some regions up to 50% of the crop has been lost to flea beetle attacks. His views were supported by a social media campaign from NFU. These claims were used to garner support for an application by NFU to Defra for a derogation, allowing UK farmers to ignore the EU ban and use neonics as normal. This week, this derogation was approved for part of southern England, despite a 400,000 signature petition against the derogation being delivered to Environment Secretary Liz Truss.

Crop devastation?

But what is the truth underlying the claims of crop devastation? It turns out the Guy Smith was wildly incorrect – when eventually official figures emerged, the Swedish yield was down just 5%, not 70%. “Official figures on the area of autumn-sown oilseed rape crop lost in the UK show that 3.7% was lost, with about half of this being successfully re-sown by farmers (this report, published by the Home Grown Cereals Authority, was available here until very recently, but has strangely been removed). Note that some crops are lost every year, with or without neonics. Although the final yield figures have not yet been collated, projected yields for autumn-sown oilseed rape across Europe are high, Crop Monitoring in Europe, Jan. 2015 – August 2015.

Commercially sensitive evidence

Given the lack of hard evidence to support claims that farmers cannot grow crops without neonics, one might ask how NFU made a successful case for a derogation. However, their case is being kept secret on the grounds that it is “commercially sensitive”, so 400,000 people cannot see why their views were ignored by Liz Truss, and why UK farmers are being allowed to continue using chemicals that the European Food Standards Agency says “pose an unacceptable risk to bees”.

Want to know more about neonicotinoids and how they work. See Prof. Goulson’s presentation video.

With permission and thanks to Prof. Dave Goulson. Original article published by New Scientist “Sowing confusion”

You may find Prof. Dave Goulson’s blog interesting

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith Wilkinson MBE August 23, 2016 at 4:46 pm

I find this report and debate on the subject of neonicotinoids both informative and alarming. Alarming because of the weight of commercial interest becoming the ‘force majeure’ despite the scientific evidence and impact on the environment in general and human health in particular.


nurturingnature August 23, 2016 at 9:30 pm

Hi Keith, yes it is very worrying. Alas though I feel cash always speaks louder and this is what it is all about….. profit.


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