When Europe approved a 2-year precautionary ban on neonicotinoid use for flowering crops, bee advocates cheered. With evidence mounting that neonicotinoid exposure is linked to unusually high numbers of bee deaths, the hope was that a two year ban could allow bee numbers to recover, and buy time for more research regarding whether permanent regulation is necessary.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. As The Guardian reports, backed by the UK government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP), agrochemical giant Syngenta is applying on behalf of British farmers for an emergency exemption for limited use of neonicotinoids:
Syngenta argues that seed treatments with neonicotinoids are needed to protect rape sown by mid-August from aphid damage and crops in areas where flea beetle pressure is historically high. It says there are no available alternatives. The exemption would allow up to 186,000 hectares of oilseed rape – 30% of the total crop area – to be planted with seeds treated with the insecticide. Bayer, another major neonicotinoid manufacturer, is not applying for an exemption.
As is so often the case with matters of science, the Guardian quotes researchers who back Syngenta's claims that no viable alternatives currently exist, and others who suggest that this is nonsense, and simply a way to undermine a ban that the government, Syngenta and farmers' unions so bitterly opposed anyway.
In an online discussion about the issue also hosted by The Guardian, Karl Mathieson explored whether farmers really do have no alternative to neonicotinoids readily available to them. Head over to The Guardian for a full rundown of the discussion, but here are a few pertinent points:
Julian Little, a spokesperson for Bayer (which is not applying for an exemption), claims that the ban will lead to increased uses of pyrethroid sprays instead.
Lin Field, President of the Royal Entomological Society, says that neonicotinoids are currently necessary for treating aphids and flea beetles, but then goes on to admit that her claims are influenced heavily by data that is in the hands of the companies that make these chemicals—data which they are often unwilling to share.
Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex argues that the neonic ban is far from "knee jerk", that years of studies have shown they pose an unacceptable risk, and then makes the case that there is grossly inadequate funding for biological or cultural controls because "you cannot patent a crop rotation system".
It's this last point, I suspect, that's most pertinent. Whether or not a farming system based on large, chemically dependent monocultures will suffer losses when those chemicals are removed feels a little like suggesting a junky should keep using because withdrawal is really unpleasant.
We already know that we don't have enough bees to pollinate our crops. We've seen plenty of evidence that small-scale agroecological operations can outperform chemically-dependent big farms. And even the conventional farming industry is showing increased interest in feeding the soil and focusing on the overall health of the system, rather than just looking for a chemical quick fix.
The biggest lesson from all this is that we need truly resilient agriculture.
If farmers can't survive a temporary ban on one chemical, they need to rethink their system. If there's one thing we know from history: shit happens. That shit might take the form of economic collapse, or wars, or civil unrest, or natural disasters, or resource depletion, or climate change, or pesticide resistance. What would these farmers do if these chemicals became unavailable or ineffective?
Never put your eggs in one basket. And grow some other food in case your eggs go bad.