The British media has been buzzing with the news that three neonicotinoid insecticides, linked to bee decline, have been banned from use on many crops across Europe. At Friends of the Earth, we were amongst those calling for this move, based on scientific evidence and common sense. Bees and other pollinating insects are vital to our well-being and that of nature more widely. There’s plenty of evidence linking neonicotinoids to damaging effects on bees, so restricting their use seems like the only reasonable way forward.
Globally, insects pollinate three quarters of crops and the vast majority of wild flowering plants. Their pollination services worldwide are valued at over $200 billion each year. In Britain alone, it would cost farmers $2.8 billion a year to replace the work provided for free by our bees. That didn’t stop the British government voting against the ban at the European Union on 29 April. Fortunately for bees, Britain could not stop the restrictions going through.
What European governments need to do now is use the two-year period of the ban to move farming in a different direction. We need to step up development of alternative technologies and methods of pest control that protect crops without harming the bees that pollinate them.
Contrary to what the pesticides industry has claimed, this does not herald an inevitable return to old chemicals or medieval farming practices. Nor should it be an excuse to promote genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution. Instead, let’s look at the development of useful technologies, including more accurate prediction of pest problems and precision targeting of pesticides where absolutely necessary.
Combined with more traditional practices, such as diversifying crop rotation and encouraging natural predators to eat the pests, there is a real opportunity here to find solutions that work for farming and nature. The prophylactic use of chemicals as toxic as neonicotinoids, coated onto seeds so that farmers do not even have a choice of whether to use the product, is what should be condemned to the past.
Bee decline is a global trend, so lessons learned about the avoidance of pesticides linked to damage to bees will have a significance beyond Europe. And we need to learn quickly how best to help bees and other pollinators. In Britain, we are lucky to have over 250 species of bees. But we’ve lost several species already and many more are rare or threatened. Solitary bee numbers have declined in half the areas studied, and some are now barely clinging on in isolated areas. The loss of individual species – in any country – is a problem. Different bees do different jobs, so we need to maintain diversity. Worldwide, wild bees have been found to do more for our food security than honey bees – it’s in our own interests to look after them.
But we already know that bees need more than a reprieve from pesticide exposure. They also need more food and shelter; we need to ensure that an abundance of wild flowers is returned to our farmland and to our towns and cities, along with places for bees to nest. The way we farm and the way we plan new development needs to change. The causes of bee decline are multiple and the solutions need to be comprehensive.
That’s why Friends of the Earth is calling for a Bee Action Plan to help growers reduce chemicals that harm bees, protect all British bee species and to ensure that enough flowers are provided for bees to feed on and nest in. Over 175 MPs, from all parties, as well as Waitrose, the Co-operative, the Women’s Institute and tens of thousands of individuals, have already backed this call.