The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, a coalition of European-based scientists, has published a Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) of research on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on both pollinators and ecosystems, and recommending that regulatory authorities tighten controls with the aim of reducing worldwide use.
The WIA from 29 authors reviewing over 800 studies claims that neonicotinoid insecticides are so widely used against sucking insect pests, like whitefly, aphids, thrips, mealy bug, bronze orange bug, psyllids and scales, and so persistent in the environment, that they are now commonly found in many non-target species and plants. The research review finds that non-target invertebrates such as bees and earthworms are suffering sub-lethal to lethal effects, and even larger vertebrates like birds and fish are accumulating increasing levels of neonics. What the eventual result of that might be, nobody knows.
The Task Force estimates that neonics now make up 40% of pesticides sold worldwide, including acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam and fipronil, with global sales of over US $2.63 billion in 2011. Part of the problem is that neonics are widely used as preventative treatments in both agriculture and horticulture, rather than only when specific target pests are present. The WIA conclusions state:
“The combination of their widescale use and inherent properties, has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, non-target vegetation, estuarine and coastal marine systems. This means that many organisms inhabiting these habitats are being repeatedly and chronically exposed to effective concentrations of these insecticides.”
In response, the UK Crop Protection Association maintains that the WIA was too selective and only chose to review research which supports their conclusions about the dangers of neonics. The CPA states:
“As such, the publication does not represent a robust assessment of the safety of systemic pesticides under realistic conditions of use……..For a meta-analysis the study seems rather selective; important sets of data, including official monitoring, have been omitted. For example, the study does not take account of the recent Royal Society review or the Australian Government study which found that the introduction of neonicotinoids had, in fact, led to “an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.”
However the Task Force maintains that industry controlled or funded research seems to always show little problem with neonics while independently funded work finds the opposite. In particular, the Task Force warns that too little is known about the overall ecological effects of neonics to make assumptions about their safety. It also warns that most studies finding neonics to be environmentally safe concentrated on studying acute effects on individual species, rather than looking at chronic effects on non-target species caused by multiple routes of exposure.
There’s a video you can watch about the Task Force’s findings but it has the usual annoying emotive ‘danger’ music and graphics showing the world turning a disastrous red. Why can’t this sort of information ever be presented in a neutral way? Maybe the authors are so worried that they feel that they need to press the ‘fear’ button to get our attention. Trouble is, that makes me suspicious rather than convinced.
So what should we do, both as gardeners and citizens concerned about our natural environment? My view is that if there’s doubt about the safety of any product, then we shouldn’t be using it, and if you regularly use neonicotinoid insecticides, please read the research and make an informed decision.
And I hope nobody asks me about what products have neonics in them so they know whether they’re using them or not. If that’s you, and you’re prepared to spray stuff on your garden when you don’t even know what’s in it, then I suggest you go out to your garden shed and read some labels. Now.
You can read the full WIA conclusions here.