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Wednesday 25 April 2018
25 April 2018 - NEWS UPDATE

Pesticides pose global threat to biodiversity and are key factor in bee decline

The conclusions of a new four-year study of the systemic pesticides neonicotinoids and fipronil (neonics) confirm that they are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial invertebrate species and are a key factor in the decline of bees.

Concern about the impact of systemic pesticides on a variety of beneficial species has been growing for the last 20 years but the science has not been considered conclusive until now.

Undertaking a full analysis of all the available literature (800 peer reviewed reports) the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides – a group of global, independent scientists - has found that there is clear evidence of harm sufficient to trigger regulatory action.

The analysis, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA), to be published* in the peer reviewed Journal Environment Science and Pollution Research, finds that neonics pose a serious risk of harm to honeybees and other pollinators such as butterflies and to a wide range of other invertebrates such as earthworms and vertebrates such as birds.

Neonics are a nerve poison and the effects of exposure range from instant and lethal to chronic. Even long term exposure at low (non-lethal) levels can be harmful. Chronic damage can include: impaired sense of smell or memory; reduced fecundity; altered feeding behaviour and reduced food intake including reduced foraging in bees; altered tunneling behaviour in earthworms; difficulty in flight and increased susceptibility to disease.

One of the lead authors of the WIA, Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin of The National Centre for Scientific Research in France said: “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. Far from protecting food production the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

The analysis found that the most affected groups of species were terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms which are exposed at high levels via soil and plants, medium levels via surface water and leaching from plants and low levels via air (dusts). Both individuals and populations can be adversely affected at even low levels and by acute (ongoing) exposure. This makes them highly vulnerable to the levels of neonics associated with agricultural use.

The next most affected group is insect pollinators such as bees and butterflies which are exposed to high contamination through air and plants and medium exposure levels through water. Both individuals and populations can be adversely affected by low or acute exposure making them highly vulnerable.

Then aquatic invertebrates such as freshwater snails and water fleas which are vulnerable to low and acute exposure and can be affected at the individual, population and community levels.

While vertebrate animals are generally less susceptible, bird populations are at risk from eating crop seeds treated with systemic insecticides, and reptile numbers have declined due to depletion of their insect prey. Microbes were found to be affected after high levels of or prolonged exposure. Samples taken in water from around the world have been found to exceed ecotoxicological limits on a regular basis.

In addition to contaminating non-target species through direct exposure (e.g. insects consuming nectar from treated plants), the chemicals are also found in varying concentrations outside intentionally treated areas. The water solubility of neonics mean that they leach and run-off easily and have been found to contaminate much wider areas leading to both chronic and acute exposure of organisms, including in riparian zones, estuarine and coastal marine systems.

They have become the most widely used group of insecticides globally, with a global market share now estimated at around 40% and sales of over US $2.63 billion in 2011. They are also commonly used in domestic treatments to prevent fleas in cats and dogs and termites in wood structures..

Chair of the Task Force, Maarten Bijleveld van Lexmond said: “The findings of the WIA are gravely worrying. We can now clearly see that neonics and fipronil pose a risk to ecosystem functioning and services which go far beyond concerns around one species and which really must warrant government and regulatory attention.”

Honey bees have been at the forefront of concern about neonics and fipronil to date and limited actions have been taken, for example by the EU Commission, but manufacturers of these neurotoxicants have refuted any claims of harm. In reviewing all the available literature rather than simply comparing one report with another, the WIA has found that field-realistic concentrations of neonics adversely affect individual navigation, learning, food collection, longevity, resistance to disease and fecundity of bees. For bumblebees, irrefutable colony-level effects have been found, with exposed colonies growing more slowly and producing significantly fewer queens.

The authors strongly suggest that regulatory agencies apply more precautionary principles and further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids and fipronil and start planning for a global phase-out or at least start formulating plans for a strong reduction of the global scale of use.

Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth, also a Bee Coalition member, added: “The widespread use of neonicotinoid seed treatments is not compatible with sustainable farming. Pesticides should be used only when they are really needed, not as an ‘insurance’ against possible pest damage. We need to see a wholesale shift to more bee-friendly ways of farming.”

Vanessa Amaral-Rogers of Buglife, a member of the Bee Coalition and one of the scientists behind the report, said: “The evidence is clear: neonicotinoids are harming our pollinating insects and could be causing damage to many other species and habitats. Regulators must take a much more precautionary approach to pesticide authorisations.”

The Worldwide Integrated Assessment was produced by an independent Task Force on Systemic Pesticides and is the most comprehensive review of evidence on neonicotinoids to date. The Bee Coalition will be urging the Westminster Government to take account of its conclusions in the upcoming National Pollinator Strategy for England, expected in autumn 2014.

Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a member of the Bee Coalition, said: “The inappropriate use of pesticides has the potential to cause massive damage to the natural environment and through this to jobs, employment and income.

“Clearly the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators has just this potential. We need to see a wholesale shift in how we conduct our agriculture to get rid of harmful chemical inputs and to build and reinforce sustainability. Failure to do this is likely to see the further decline of invaluable species like bees.”

Nick Mole of Pesticide Action Network UK, a member of the Bee Coalition, commented: "This important report from the IUCN makes it clear that those that have been concerned about the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators have been right to be concerned and we find it incredulous that Defra and the NFU have consistently towed the pesticide manufacturers line in claiming that these bee toxic pesticides present no threat to the world's pollinators."

Helen Browning, Director of the Soil Association, a member of the Bee Coalition, added: "This overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of neonicotinoids follows a pattern. Classes of pesticides, previously claimed to be safe, are being found to be dangerous and subsequently banned. Farming urgently needs to learn the lessons of organic farmers, in the way they succeed to manage pests and benefit wildlife without the use of dangerous pesticides."
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