Oh dear – these are back in the news. Sadly the focus of the argument is producing the same reactive inflammatory discussion between ‘farmers’ and ‘conservationists’ even though both actually want the same: a healthy productive environment where all of us – and by “us” I mean all living things – can live, work, and produce food effectively.
The basic story about neonicotinoids is that they are an insecticidal seed dressing applied to various agricultural crops such as oil seed rape to prevent either attack by insects themselves in the case of flea beetles with rape, or as with the current issue over sugar beet, aphids. It’s not so much that the aphids attack the plants but that they are a vector: aphids carry viruses and when they feed on the sap of the plant, they transfer these pathogens to the crop and decimate the yield. These neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU but allowances are made for them to be used in extreme circumstances.
The advantage of applying the insecticide as a coating on the seed – as with neonicotinoids – is that it provides the plant with systemic protection so there is reduced need for spraying the plants; this can be harmful to insects other than the target species. The disadvantage of the systemic nature of the insecticide however is that is leaches in to the earth and is taken up by the surrounding plants in the soil water, and can persist for a long period (years) thus rendering the ‘safer’ margins beyond the field deeply questionable. The irony is that many farms have specific wildflower areas on their land to encourage pollinators and beneficial insects but these too are likely contaminated with the insecticide due to the permeable nature of the neonics. I am not quoting papers here as there are numerous studies to show that the effects of toxicity are basically bad news for bees and other insects. Needless to say, the effects of insect damage on crops is also bad news, and to say that bees are more important than someone’s livelihood is pointless and unhelpful, especially given the challenges faced by our farmers who ultimately have responsibility to manage our food production and landscape on behalf of all of us. Of course the short-term view of prioritising relentless production over our natural capital is also unwise…and so it goes on ad nauseam.
So far, so what’s new: lots of frayed tempers and poor arguments when actually we need to be working TOGETHER. The vast majority of our current agricultural system requires crops to be grown in a way which is not conducive to wildlife, soil health, or resilience. Regenerative agriculture is far more sympathetic to these elements but it takes time, courage, and support to pioneer these new ways of working which will ultimately benefit everyone. Saying ‘sugar beet can’t be grown without neonics’ is a poor state to be in, but countering with ‘don’t grow it then’ is an equally poor response. Are there other plants which produce sugar in a more regenerative way? Or can our British beets be grown in an agroforestry system? – hauling cane sugar from equatorial regions isn’t a sustainable alternative. In the immediate situation, are there steps that can be taken to mitigate the effect of the neonics elsewhere on the farm? And if yes, are these being recognised and endorsed? Encouraging natural predators and a more balanced ecosystem to deal with the problems at source seems an obvious solution but it takes time and reworking from literally the ground up to do this.
Sadly the discussion seems to revolve about sugar beet not being a flowering plant so doesn’t encourage visits by bees…this completely disregards the systemic, landscape-wide effect of this insecticide as the toxicity is not a contact issue (unlike sprayed applications) but is more subtle and pernicious within the honey bee and bumblebee colony, affecting the foraging capabilities and pheromone production. The derogation is limited though, and surely a better stance would be to acknowledge the effect of the toxicity and demonstrate the steps being taken to reduce the negative impact to a workable minimum rather than use the following rather lame retort to assuage the public’s concerns:
None of the above addresses the impact on wildlife or, let’s be honest, the nation’s favourite: bees. It is undoubtedly important, relevant, and needs to be understood that simply allowing crops to fail because of a seemingly unrelated species is not going to get any truck with a grower staring at their balance sheet in dismay. There ARE ways to grow our crops without resorting to extensive agrochemical use but it takes the means and resources to do so and – more importantly – a desire to change. There will/must be a transition period but hopefully if growers and farmers are encouraged and supported in their quest for more equable ways to produce food, the future is brighter for all of us – even aphids…