Neonic ban not the answer according to scientists

Earlier this year, the European Union made the controversial decision to approve a field ban on the most widely used group of insecticides across the globe – neonicotinoids.

Coming into force at the end of 2018, the EU ban will restrict their use to closed greenhouses, meaning millions of farmers will soon be forced to look at alternative methods of pest-proofing their crops.

For the uninitiated, neonicotinoids (or neonics) entered into commercial use in the 1990s, quickly becoming popular due to their systemic effects (neonicotinoids are absorbed by the plant and can thus protect it for several weeks) and low levels of toxicity for humans and animals compared to other insecticides on the market.

However, like all insecticides, neonics soon became the subject of scrutiny, and several forms were withdrawn from use in France, Italy, Germany and Slovenia during the 2000s, under suspicion they may have been contributing to bee deaths.

These decisions then developed into EU-wide restrictions on the use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) in 2013, and eventually, an all-encompassing ban approved in April of this year. The flow-on effects of this ban are already being seen in New Zealand, where hardware store giants Bunnings Warehouse and Mitre 10 have agreed to the gradual phase-out of products containing neonics in their stores nationwide.

Additionally, Health Canada recently conducted special reviews for two neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin and thiamethoxam) and is now proposing a ban on their use in outdoor agricultural, turf and ornamental uses.

As this issue continues to spread globally, the big questions to consider are:

A)      Do neonicotinoids have impacts on bee populations so significant as to warrant their banning?

B)      What are the alternatives to their use, and are they any better for the environment?

C)      How might these bans affect farming, e.g. crop yields, land use, economic output?

D)      And, bringing the issue back to this country, will and/or should New Zealand follow in the footsteps of the EU and enforce its own nationwide neonic ban?

Impacts on bees

In answer to the first, and perhaps most important, of these queries, Dr. Jacqueline Rowarth says "not at all":

“The neonic ban in Europe was against the advice of the European food safety authority, who say evidence of harm from neonics is low. And if you look at the research they were screening it against -it’s completely flawed.”

The research Rowarth refers to was published in the June 2017 issue of Science under the title “Country-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild bees”, and was undertaken by a team of ecologists, biologists and bee-experts.

The researchers concluded that their findings “confirm[ed] that neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinator health under realistic agricultural conditions”, a conclusion quickly picked up by media outlets across the world and repeated in headlines like “Largest-Ever Study of Controversial Pesticides Finds Harm to Bees” (Nature) and “Neonicotinoid Pesticides Are Slowly Killing Bees” (PBS).

But is this really the case?

Jon Entine, senior research fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy in California, sides with Dr. Rowarth.

In an article for the Genetic Literacy Project, Entine suggests the study, whilst thorough, is entirely inconclusive and “could just as easily have read: ‘Landmark Study Shows Neonic Pesticides Improve Bee Health’—and would have been equally correct”.

Upon evaluation of over 1,000 pages of data, Entine concluded:

“of 258 endpoints,

  • over 92 percent showed no effects,
  • only 16 endpoints showed effects,
  • negative effects showed up 9 times—3.5 percent of all outcomes, and
  • 7 showed a benefit from using neonics—2.7 percent.”

Based on those outcomes, several noted scientists, including Norman Carreck of the International Bee Research Association, and pollinator risk expert Chris Cutler, said it was difficult to draw any reliable conclusions.

In fact, Entine even notes that R.F Pywell, an ecologist involved in conducting the study, admitted the data was conflicting, illustrated by the fact the controls suffered losses 400 percent greater than the national average, suggesting, according to Entine, that “the field experiments may have been poorly constructed—raising doubts about the standard of research for the entire project.”

Furthermore, Entine points to Lina Field, an insect molecular biologist at the UK’s non-profit Rothamstead Research Centre, who initially “had high hopes for the study” but was in the end left unconvinced:

“I think we need to take more time to study this latest neonics research in detail. … I had high hopes for this research (or a research project of this sort); we certainly need a thorough, large-scale investigation to get to the bottom of which factor or factors seem to be harming bee populations. However, I don’t think this was it. And from the variety of “expert reactions” to the paper, it seems that there are a few others who agree with me.

“I was disappointed that there was so little convincing evidence from so much accumulated data. For me, this emphasised the profound difficulties of trying to understand what happens to these widely foraging pollinators that are subjected to a variety of competing influences, or potential influences. And what evidence that was available was presented with such incompleteness, that I found myself beginning to doubt some of the assumptions about the research that I had been willing to accept. More importantly, I don’t think this paper should encourage a hasty and ill-informed decision on neonics.”

However, that isn’t to say big improvements can’t be made to the way agricultural operations control pests worldwide, and equally, the inadequacy of the aforementioned study isn’t proof that noenicitinoids are completely harmless to pollinators.

Rather, the point to make is, the EU’s decision to place a blanket ban on neonicotinoids was rash, lacked the support of hard science and conclusive research, and conflicts with the opinions of a large percentage of the scientific community.

Flow-on effects

On top of that, it was seemingly made without considering the flow-on effects.

For example, the decision leaves farmers with chemical alternatives which are far more toxic; a fact that has already been well documented in Europe since the restrictions introduced in 2013, with farmers turning to conventional insecticides such as pyrethroids and carbamates, which have to be sprayed up to six times more frequently than neonics to achieve the same results.

Additionally, in the UK, the banning of neonics used to treat autumn sown oilseed rape has hugely affected some farmers.

Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, told The Guardian in 2014 that he had “already sprayed his crop in Bedfordshire three times [that] year with an alternative insecticide, before giving up, replanting and spraying again”, and that “there [was] a strong feeling among farmers that [they were] worse off and the environment [was] worse off”.

If neonics were to be banned in New Zealand, cereal and maize production would lessen, which as Dr. Rowarth says, would have a flow-on effect on dairy farming:

“If we ban it in NZ we’ll lose a lot of cereal and maize production, and of course maize is used for silage, so dairy farmers will suffer, and whatever people may say, dairy farming is still vital for the NZ economy.”

Prospects for a ban in NZ

A neonic ban in this country would appear unlikely when looking at the bald facts.

 Neonics are used solely on non-flowering, wind-pollinated crops in New Zealand, so aren’t sprayed anywhere near hives. Furthermore, our hive numbers have grown exponentially in the past 10-15 years, growing by almost 400,000 (422,000 to 795,000) between 2012 and 2017, according to surveys conducted by Apiculture NZ.

In New Zealand, neonicotinoids are used as a crop spray and also in seed coating where the product is absorbed into the young plant protecting it for up to ten weeks. Unlike most countries employing neonics overseas, including those in the EU, New Zealand sprays on crops are generally non-attractive to bees (we don’t grow things like oil seed rape) and therefore bee exposure to the chemical is fairly limited.

In fact, as a recent media release from Agcarm explains, “neonics have been on the market in New Zealand for more than 25 years and been applied to protect many hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops and pasture”.

In that case, if neonics really were a serious threat to our bee population, wouldn’t we have noticed over this 25-year period? Would hive numbers have nearly tripled since the early 2000s?

 Something the Agcarm release also points out is how carefully neonic use is managed in New Zealand to ensure exposure risks are virtually non-existent.

The main potential exposure pathways are controlled by:

1) Reducing neonicotinoid containing dust from the seed coat during the drilling (planting) process.

2) Minimising  residues in pollen/nectar through proper application practices, and

3) Avoiding the use of neonicotinoid sprays on crops which are flowering. 

With all of these safeguards in place, along with the knowledge that New Zealand has a lengthy history of incident-free neonic use, a ban here would be completely illogical.

As the Agcarm release concludes: “banning them would set New Zealand agriculture back 30 years and leave farmers with no choice but to use more harmful older technology”.

What are the alternatives?

Jaqueline Rowarth worries pressure from environmentalists may see NZ follow Europe’s lead, which may trigger a move to alternative chemicals.

The same could be true for Canada.

Canadian farmers have already begun to voice their concerns over the lack of suitable alternatives should the ban go ahead, with Barry Senft, CEO of ‘Grain Farmers of Ontario’, saying: “Neonics are an "important tool" for farmers, with few alternatives”, and Ron Bonnet of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture saying he’s “not convinced the alternatives will be better, particularly since some of them have to be applied in much larger quantities to achieve the same result.”

According to Peter Dearden, professor of biochemistry at Otago University, there are no suitable chemical alternatives to neocotinoids, and instead of banning them, the focus should be on how their use can be lessened and combined with more natural forms of pest control, like the introduction of predators and biocontrol:

“There aren’t any suitable chemical alternatives. The question to ask now is: are there concentrations of neonics we can use without affecting bees? Are there ways we can use them without harming bees? Maybe the use of more natural alternatives, introducing predators, biocontrol, etc. along with limited, controlled use of insecticides might be the way to go.”

To find these answers, a good deal of research still needs to be done, research that will take time and considerable resources. Until that point, Deardon says, nobody is in a position to make definitive decisions:

“If we could understand better the habitat and ecology of the pests we have, a lot could be done to deal with them outside of simply applying insecticides. It’s something farmers will have to look at, but at the end of the day, it’s a long road and we aren’t really in a position to say what needs to be done at this stage until we’ve done the research.”

The lead author of the controversial study, Ben Woodcock, has himself published a piece saying neonicotinoids shouldn’t be abandoned.

Learning to live with neonicotinoids

Woodcock, like Dearden, says the answer lies in learning how to live with neonicotinoids and developing systems that both benefit the farmer while having a negligible effect on pollinators.

The issue, he says, is not so much the neonicotinoids themselves, but rather the other ecological factors that contribute to stress among the bee population, making them resultantly more vulnerable to pesticides of all kinds.

Woodcock promotes the creation of new habitats rich in flowering plants which facilitate healthy bees, saying, “healthy populations of honeybees and wild bees are far more likely to be able to cope with exposure to neonicotinoids, as well as other pesticides that they may be exposed to in these systems.”

A good start, perhaps, would be to invest more time and energy into simple but effective tools like the pasture paintings and clay seed balls devised by New Zealand’s own ‘For the Love of Bees’, or the pollinator sanctuaries being set up in New York, which promote a holistic, more ecologically conscious approach to land use that could be adopted by farmers.

On that subject, kiwi-based organisation ‘Trees for Bees’ has been encouraging ecologically beneficial, pollinator-friendly farming for close to a decade, showing how the introduction of multipurpose plants which carry out shelter and erosion control functions can leave both farmer and bee happy and thriving.

New technology approaches

We might also look at the ‘CRISPR’ gene-editing techniques increasingly used overseas.

Named the breakthrough of the year by Science magazine in 2015, CRISPR involves the precise snipping of minute genetic sequences from the genome of an organism, or conversely, the addition of sequences from the genome of another species.

CRISPR has the potential to increase crop resistance to pests or, through mechanisms such as gene drive, eliminate pests from an agricultural environment altogether.

While it is still early days, and such powerful technologies need to be developed with caution, these scientific approaches to pest control may become an effective, environmentally friendly alternative to chemical use. Time will tell whether they are permitted in this country.

When it comes down to it, we have to acknowledge and appreciate the importance of agriculture - socially and economically - the world over and realise that agricultural operations will always have some effect on their natural surroundings, that’s the price we pay to keep food on the table.

However, with the right processes in place, backed by sound science and extensive research, there’s no reason we can’t lessen those effects without putting a dent in agricultural outputs.

As Australian microbiologist Professor Caroline Hauxwell says:

“Further development of sophisticated pest management strategies, with emphasis on the use of less harmful alternatives such as microbial and biological controls, offers a route to a more effective, long-term solution to the decline in insects and bee health.

A ban on neonicotinoids may give campaigners a buzz, but it might not save the bees.”