New Pesticides Poison Everything
Neonicotinoid insecticides are killing more than just bees - entire farmland ecosystems are being poisoned. Photo: honeybees (Apis mellifera) on wild fennel, Albany, California, by Jack Wolf via Flickr.
Neonicotinoids are poisoning entire farmland ecosystems
by Damian Carrington
“Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it.”
The widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides is causing a neurotoxic overload afflicting entire farm ecosystems from earthworms to bees, other pollinators and birds, writes Damian Carrington. A collapse in food production may inevitably follow.
The researchers compare their impact with that reported in Silent Spring, the landmark 1962 book by Rachel Carson that revealed the decimation of birds and insects by the blanket use of DDT and other pesticides and led to the modern environmental movement.
Billions of dollars' worth of the potent and long-lasting neurotoxins are sold every year but regulations have failed to prevent the poisoning of almost all habitats, the international team of scientists concluded in the most detailed study yet.
Entire food chains contaminated
As a result, they say, creatures essential to global food production - from bees to earthworms - are likely to be suffering grave harm and the chemicals must be phased out.
The new assessment analysed the risks associated with neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides on which farmers spend $2.6bn (£1.53bn) a year. Neonicotinoids are applied routinely rather than in response to pest attacks but the scientists highlight the "striking" lack of evidence that this leads to increased crop yields.
"The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT", said Jean-Marc Bonmatin, of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, one of the 29 international researchers who conducted the four-year assessment.
"Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it."
Silent Spring all over again
He said the chemicals imperilled food supplies by harming bees and other pollinators, which fertilise about three-quarters of the world's crops, and the organisms that create the healthy soils which the world's food requires in order to grow.
Professor Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex, another member of the team, said: "It is astonishing we have learned so little. After Silent Spring revealed the unfortunate side-effects of those chemicals, there was a big backlash.
"But we seem to have gone back to exactly what we were doing in the 1950s. It is just history repeating itself. The pervasive nature of these chemicals mean they are found everywhere now.
"If all our soils are toxic, that should really worry us, as soil is crucial to food production."
The assessment, published on last week, cites the chemicals as a key factor in the decline of bees, alongside the loss of flower-rich habitats meadows and disease.
The insecticides harm bees' ability to navigate and learn, damage their immune systems and cut colony growth. In worms, which provide a critical role in aerating soil, exposure to the chemicals affects their ability to tunnel.
Dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes, and other creatures that live in water are also suffering, with some studies showing that ditchwater has become so contaminated it could be used directly as a lice-control pesticide.
Major declines in birds caused by neonicotinoids?
The report warned that loss of insects may be linked to major declines in the birds that feed on them, though it also notes that eating just a few insecticide-treated seeds would kill birds directly:
"Overall, a compelling body of evidence has accumulated that clearly demonstrates that the wide-scale use of these persistent, water-soluble chemicals is having widespread, chronic impacts upon global biodiversity and is likely to be having major negative effects on ecosystem services such as pollination that are vital to food security."
The report is being published as a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research and was funded by a charitable foundation run by the ethical bank Triodos.
The EU, opposed by the British government and the National Farmers Union, has already imposed a temporary three-year moratorium on the use of some neonicotinoids on some crops.
US president Barack Obama recently ordered an urgent assessment of the impact of neonicotinoids on bees. But the insecticides are used all over the world on crops, as well as flea treatments in cats and dogs and to protect timber from termites.
CPA: 'not a robust assessment'
However, the Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers, criticised the report. Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the CPA, said:
"It is a selective review of existing studies which highlighted worst-case scenarios, largely produced under laboratory conditions. As such, the publication does not represent a robust assessment of the safety of systemic pesticides under realistic conditions of use."
"Importantly, they have failed or neglected to look at the broad benefits provided by this technology and the fact that by maximising yields from land already under cultivation, more wild spaces are preserved for biodiversity.
"The crop protection industry takes its responsibility towards pollinators seriously. We recognise the vital role pollinators play in global food production."
Yet every relevant peer-reviewed paper has been analysed.
The new report, called the Worldwide Integrated Assessment on Systemic Pesticides, analysed every peer-reviewed scientific paper on neonicotinoids and another insecticide called fipronil since they were first used in the mid-1990s.
These chemicals are different from other pesticides because, instead of being sprayed over crops, they are usually used to treat seeds. This means they are taken up by every part of the growing plant, including roots, leaves, pollen and nectar, providing multiple ways for other creatures to be exposed.
The scientists found that the use of the insecticides shows a "rapid increase" over the past decade and that the slow breakdown of the compounds and their ability to be washed off fields in water has led to "large-scale contamination".
The team states that current rules on use have failed to prevent dangerous levels building up in the environment.
Known and unknown unknowns
Almost as concerning as what is known about neonicotinoids is what is not known, the researchers said:
- Most countries have no public data on the quantities or locations of the systemic pesticides being applied.
- The testing demanded by regulators to date has not determined the long-term effect of sub-lethal doses.
- Nor has it assessed the impact of the combined impact of the cocktail of many pesticides encountered in most fields.
- The toxicity of neonicotinoids has only been established for very few of the species known to be exposed.
For example, just four of the 25,000 known species of bee have been assessed. There is virtually no data on effects on reptiles or mammals.
This article was originally published on The Guardian Environment
via The Ecologist @ http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2459001/neonicotinoids_are_poisoning_entire_farmland_ecosystems.html
Bird decline 'smoking gun' for pesticide's effects
Starlings like this one have been impacted by the use of a neonicotinoid chemical according to scientists
The widespread use of a type of insecticide that has been blamed for honeybee deaths is linked to a marked decline in bird numbers in Europe, a report says.
Dutch scientists say their data shows that the chemical is associated with a collapse in common bird species.
But manufacturers argue the evidence of these effects is not substantiated.
Imidacloprid is one of a number of neonicotinoid insecticides introduced in the 1990s as a more environmentally friendly way of dealing with crop pests.
What exactly are Neonicotinoids?
- Neonicotinoid pesticides are new nicotine-like chemicals and act on the nervous systems of insects, with a lower threat to mammals and the environment than many older treatments
- Pesticides made in this way are water-soluble, which means they can be applied to the soil and taken up by the whole plant. They are called "systemic", meaning they turn the plant itself into a poison factory, with toxins coming from roots, leaves, stems and pollen
- Neonicotinoids are often applied as seed treatments, which means coating the seeds before planting
However, there have been growing concerns about their environmental impacts. A number of studies have linked them to the decline in honeybees.
“How much evidence do you need before you take action?”
- Prof Dave Goulson University of Sussex
A recent, wide-ranging review of the scientific literature concluded that the chemicals were causing significant damage to a number of beneficial species.
Now, Dutch scientists have, for the first time, shown an association between the use of imidacloprid and a decline in common birds.
The researchers looked at 15 bird species that depend on insects as their main source of food. The Dutch have kept long-term records on the numbers and health of these warblers, swallows, starlings and thrushes.
The scientists were then able to compare this dataset to surface water quality measurements. They found that higher concentrations of imidacloprid in the water was "consistently associated" with declines in many of the monitored birds.
A farmer's perspective on neonics
George Ponsonby farms around 1,200 hectares of arable land in Gloucestershire.
At this time of the year he is about to harvest oilseed rape, which has been previously treated with neonicotinoids. He's environmentally aware: his fields have wide verges for birds and he puts out feed in the winter. He doesn't believe the science against neonicotinoids has been proven out in the field.
"If we knew we were decimating our bee population then we wouldn't do it," he told BBC News.
As a result of the EU moratorium, he will have to spray with older pesticides that he says "aren't as effective and are a lot more random".
The ban is a "step backwards" he argues. "We don't spray for fun; it's expensive."
Surveying a field of totally untreated kale, which has been decimated by the flea beetle, he says the same would most likely happen to the neighbouring oilseed rape field if neonicotinoids were not used.
"We will almost certainly lose yield: 10% probably, maybe as much as 20%."
"If the concentrations are higher than 20 nanogrammes per litre in the environment, we found a reduction of 3.5% in local populations," said one of the authors, Dr Hans de Kroon from Radboud University.
"In 10 years, it's a 35% reduction in the local population. It's really huge. It means the alarm bells are on straight away."
The scientists believe that the insecticides, which are mainly used to coat seeds, are leaching into the soil and water and accumulating over time. They argue that in some soil types, neonicotinoids can persist for two to three years.
They say this build-up is killing more insects than intended and this is having a significant impact on birds that eat them.
Scientists are unsure if eating contaminated prey is harming birds like these swallows
"They might be less able to produce their young, or grow their young," said lead author, Caspar Hallman, also from Radboud University.
"It might increase their mortality by food deprivation. We think this is the most likely mechanism."
The scientists still can't rule out the possibility that imidacloprid might be having an effect through other means. It is possible that birds are being exposed to the chemical through the prey that they consume or they are simply eating seeds coated in it.
As well as looking at pesticide concentrations, the researchers also looked at the possibility the decline in these species had started before the introduction of imidacloprid. They also examined the idea that changes in land use were responsible.
They ruled out both possibilities.
"I think that the information we have been able to provide is exactly the information that was missing in most studies," said Dr de Kroon.
"In that sense, this could be the definite 'smoking gun'. You now see the evidence getting more complete, around the effects of imidacloprid on the environment."
Bayer, the manufacturer of imidacloprid, rejects the findings of this new work, saying it does not prove a "causal link" between the chemical and the decline in birds.
"Neonicotinoids have gone through an extensive risk assessment, which has shown that they are safe to the environment when used responsibly according to the label instructions," said a spokesman.
"Birds living close to aquatic habitats - the species that one could expect to be affected most by concentrations of neonicotinoids in surface water - show no or negligible negative impact."
Starlings were one of 15 common bird species assessed
Other observers, though, regard the Dutch study as breaking new ground in terms of understanding the impacts of neonicotinoids. They believe it is the first evidence of impacts on a much wider range of species than just bees.
"If insectivorous birds are declining because of these chemicals, then other things that eat insects are going to be, too," said Prof Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex, UK.
"We're also looking at bats and hedgehogs and shrews and fish and so on. There's not much left really. How much evidence do you need before you take action?"
The researchers argue that their work should inform the political debate about neonicotinoids.
The EU has instigated a two-year moratorium on the use of the chemicals on flowering crops. The UK was one of eight nations that opposed the ban.
Scientists in the field say the new research strengthens the argument for increasing restrictions on a wider range of crops and for domestic users.
Many oppose an outright ban but they are challenging manufacturers to provide evidence that the use of neonicotinoids boosts yields.
"We need to identify when they are important and restrict use to those sites; it's not difficult," said Prof Goulson.
"You need to do field trials, and try not using the neonicotinoid seed dressing.
"If you don't get a reduction in yield then stop using the bloody things; its not rocket science!"
The research is published in the journal Nature.
Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.
From BBC @ http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28216810
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