The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee today published the two volume report of its investigation into Pollinators and Pesticides. The report focussed on the so-called neonicotinoid group of insecticides and the conclusions are clear. The report recommends that that the government department responsible (Defra):
… should prepare to introduce a moratorium in the UK on the use of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam by 1 January 2014, and support such a proposal in the EU.
The three named chemicals are the most toxic of the 5 neonicotinoid insecticides currently in use by farmers, growers, park keepers and gardeners.
In response to the pesticides industry’s oft-stated mantra that we ‘cannot do without them’, the reports says:
Neonicotinoid pesticides are not fundamental to the general economic or agricultural viability of UK farming, although there may be specific issues in relation to oilseed rape that might require careful management if neonicotinoids were not available to growers.
About another favourite argument of the pro-insecticide lobby, that banning neonics will just lead to the increased use of other insecticides, the report says:
In the interests of the environment, food security, minimising resistance among pests and maximising agricultural incomes, it is desirable that the minimal possible amount of chemical pesticides is used in agricultural production. This means moving away from any excessive use of chemical pesticides and utilising integrated pest management. Such an approach would prevent any ban on neonicotinoids necessarily causing the increased use of potentially more harmful substances.
This is from the BBKA (the British Beekeepers Association) response to the report:
Whilst the BBKA is concerned about the possible damage that these substances may be inflicting on pollinators, it notes that unequivocal field based studies have not been conducted and the evidence is incomplete.
There was an attempt by Fera (the Food and Environment Research Agency) to conduct field studies in 2012 but, as noted in the report, the conclusions were meaningless. In part this was due to poor experimental practice but also because it turned out that the control colonies were contaminated with high levels of neonics, thus rendering them useless as controls. Moreover, the neonics in the control colonies were not the one that the test colonies were exposed to! Such is the ubiquity of these things in the agricultural landscape that it is now pretty much impossible to conduct field trials that compare contaminated conditions with clean ones; there are no clean fields left. This may be one reason why the report in its opening paragraph states that:
certainty is—as yet, if ever—unachievable.
Yet the BBKA blithely ignores this and asks for unequivocal evidence.
The solution to this impasse is to apply the so-called precautionary principle, something which the report discusses at length and is enshrined in both UN and EU principles. Yet the BBKA seems not to understand what this principle is. It says:
clarification is required on what is meant by the precautionary principle and how it is to be applied with regard to pesticides in the UK and Europe.
The HoC report quotes both the UN and the EU versions of the precautionary principle. I will repeat here the 1992 UN Rio Declaration (with my emphasis):
In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
Given the report’s conclusions that economics are not a basis keeping neonics, what is it about ‘lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures’ that the BBKA does not understand?
The BBKA’s strap line of ‘supporting bees and beekeepers’ is shown for exactly what it is; a slogan dreamt up by a publicist with little basis in reality.