A Great British Bee Count run by Friends of the Earth, the green campaign group, recorded sightings of more than 370,000 bees this summer. Yet this impressive tally says more about public enthusiasm for spotting species such as the common carder and the buff-tailed bumble bee than it does about the health of the native bee population. There has long been concern about the decline of wild bees and the increasingly frequent collapses of commercial colonies — observed across Europe but especially acute in the US. The role that certain pesticides might have played, however, is a matter of fierce controversy among environmentalists, farmers and industry lobbyists.
Now new research concludes that neonicotinoids — a group of pesticides chemically similar to the nicotine in tobacco — might have cut the presence of wild bees in the British countryside by up to 30 per cent since they became widely used on oilseed rape crops.
The research, based on volunteer sightings over 18 years, is important because it covers more species over a longer period than previous studies, many of which were carried out in labs. It suggests neonicotinoids caused bee species that forage on the bright yellow fields of oilseed rape to become 10 per cent less widespread on average.
This is a strong corrective to the arguments put forward by agrichemical companies such as Bayer and Syngenta, who have only grudgingly and gradually accepted there is any evidence of their products having a harmful effect. They contend that other factors, such as weather, parasites and habitat loss are more significant.
The latest research findings might not be conclusive, but they build on a growing body of evidence that is too strong for policymakers to ignore. The health of bees is not just a popular campaigning issue for environmental non-governmental organisations and wildlife enthusiasts. It is also crucial to the global food supply. Although most staple crops are not affected, more than three-quarters of the world’s food crops — including fruit, vegetables, coffee and chocolate — rely at least in part on natural pollination. A 2009 study estimated that pollination supported 9.5 per cent of the value of world agricultural production for human food.
There are no restrictions as yet in the US but the EU has taken action, imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of three pesticides, which it will review by the start of 2017. The latest evidence suggests that if anything, they should consider tightening the rules.
Policymakers should certainly treat the arguments put forward by pesticide manufacturers — whose tactics are compared by NGOs to those used in the past by tobacco companies — with scepticism. Farmers’ concerns about crop yields are more understandable, but recent UK analysis suggests neonicotinoids do not boost their profits on average. There are other ways to manage pests that deserve attention.
In Britain, ministers originally opposed the EU ban and granted growers of rapeseed oil a partial exemption in 2015. They rejected a similar request this year. However, the debate will now take place in the context of a much broader policy shake-up. Brexit will leave the UK free to set its own environmental standards. It will also force the government to decide what form any future support to farmers should take.
In recent years, a large part of EU subsidies has been used to pay farmers for conservation work. A big question is whether Theresa May’s government will attach similar importance to environmental measures, especially those that have forceful interest groups opposing them. The position it takes on neonicotinoids could be an early test.
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