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London bee summit: pesticides or no pesticides?


The recent bee summit in London brought scientists and industry experts together to evaluate the impact of neonicotinoid use on honey- and bumblebees. Photograph: Robin Loznak/ZUMA Press/Corbis


Powered by article titled “London bee summit: pesticides or no pesticides?” was written by Emma Bryce, for on Tuesday 28th January 2014 10.38 UTC

In London on Friday, January 24, research scientists, chemical industry representatives, and journalists gathered for an open discussion session that concluded a three-day summit about the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybees. The result was a rich debate about the future use of these chemicals in agriculture, and implications for food production. But the efforts by some industry representatives to oversimplify the issue gave an otherwise intricate discussion the aura of a highly polarised one.

Neonicotinoids, which are widely used in Europe and America, are applied as a coating on seeds of crops like oilseed rape, maize, and sunflowers before they are planted, in this way protecting the plant from the start. But since this class of chemicals was linked with a decline in honey- and bumblebee health in 2012, followed by The European Commission’s imposed restrictions on specific uses of neonicontinoids soon after, they have been recognised more for the controversy they are associated with than anything else.

The science cannot definitively link neonicotinoid impact on individual pollinators to the widespread, overall decline of honeybee populations going on in Europe and America—the phenomenon labelled Colony Collapse Disorder. But a growing body of research on the subject is helping to cement the concerns of conservationists and scientists alike. Friday’s open discussion helped air those concerns, and yet, these were foregrounded against a controversial industry suggestion that if we stop using neonicotinoids, we essentially commit to a future of environmental ruin.

Speaking during his presentation on behalf of Bayer CropScience—the company that makes imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid-based pesticide—environmental safety manager Richard Schmuck concluded his talk by stating that not only will food production dip dramatically if we stop using neonicotinoids, but that in an effort to make up for lowered production, countries will have to convert untouched wild land into crops and ‘import’ land from developing world countries. That will result in decreased biodiversity in Europe, America, and abroad, he said.

This rather extreme argument gives us just two options: a world with pesticides, or one without. But it misrepresents the approach of scientists and several conservation groups, and also contradicts what the chemical industries themselves say.

“I think it’s just an oversimplification by the industry to suit their message,” says Sandra Bell, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK who was present at Friday’s meeting. “We’re not necessarily talking about banning every pesticide. We’re talking about minimising the use.” A speaker at the conference, University of Sussex Professor David Goulson, leader of one of the research groups that found neonicotinoid impacts on pollinators in 2012, agreed, adding that in order to grow enough food to feed an increasing world population, he recognised that chemicals would inevitably be part of the mix.

But the binary pesticide/no pesticide scenario overwrites a third option: using pesticides together with other controls. This is one aspect of integrated pest management (IPM), touted as a ‘common sense‘ approach to farming. “IPM is not a system that doesn’t use pesticides at all,” says Goulson, “but you try and minimise the pesticides and only ever use them responsibly, and as a last resort.” This ideal contrasts starkly with the current reality of crops that receive up to 22 pesticides at a time.

Rotation-cropping, organic farming, production of pest-resistant crops, and the use of state-funded agronomists to evaluate land and apply tailored pest control, were all raised as alternative management options during the open debate. Matthias Schott, a PhD student at the University of Giessen in Germany, who was there to present a poster about whether bees can sense neonicotinoids, suggested that in an ideal future, farmers would be given financial incentives for avoiding unnecessary pesticide use. Currently, he says, “there is no possibility for farmers to get pesticide-undressed seeds from the big companies. Therefore most agricultural land is exposed to insecticides.”


A bee hovers over a cherry blossom in Stuttgart, Germany Photograph: Uwe Anspach/AFP/Getty Images


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