Environment Secretary Michael Gove has announced that the UK will support a total ban on neonicotinoid pesticides across the EU.
The scientific evidence has been steadily building for some time that neonicotinoid pesticides are having a widespread impact on bees, other pollinators including moths and butterflies and birds and other wildlife. At Butterfly Conservation (BC) we became convinced that the evidence, despite some uncertainty, was sufficient to call for a ban several years ago, in part because of the extremely worrying link between rates of neonicotinoid use and the decline of widespread butterflies.
The pesticides are taken up by wild plants growing in field margins and therefore both adult butterflies drinking contaminated nectar and caterpillars feeding on plant tissues are exposed. Essentially, butterflies, a non-target group of widespread insects not generally found in cropped fields were apparently being contaminated in the general countryside, the very field margins we have been encouraging and even paying farmers to create and manage for wildlife for years.
When that study was published by researchers from the Universities of Stirling and Sussex, the Centre for Hydrology (CEH) and BC in 2015 it came on the back of other studies that were showing even quite low rates of contamination could have serious negative impacts on the health and behaviour of bees. A recent study by CEH which gained widespread publicity demonstrated an effect, not just on individual bees but at the population level, impacting on bee colonies. This has clearly influenced Mr Gove and his advisers to take a strong, common sense, stance for nature.
Perhaps one of the most alarming recent scientific papers was from Switzerland in which analysis of honey from around the world found widespread, global contamination with the neuro-toxic neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are just one pressure on our wildlife, removing them from the countryside will undoubtedly help, but we also need the Government to ensure that future farming policy has the environment at its heart, rewarding farmers who provide public goods such as wildlife, flood alleviation and clean water which will help ensure a long-term future for farming and help restore the countryside.
BC is delighted by this bold decision from Mr Gove and hope that he will now go on and look critically at the regulatory processes that permitted these dangerous chemicals to be used in the countryside. BC believes that there remains an urgent need for a major improvement in the regulation of all pesticides including thorough screening and independent research into their impact on biodiversity before they are approved for use.
This research should include field trials of their use in practice as well as laboratory studies of direct mortality on a wide range of native, non-target invertebrate species. The sort of trials that have, eventually, led to the scientific evidence being sufficient to convince politicians to act.
By Dr Nigel Bourn, BC Director of Conservation and Science Policy
Follow Nigel on Twitter @NigelBournBC
Gilburn, A.S., Bunnefeld, N., Wilson, J., Botham, M.S., Brereton, T., Fox, R. & Goulson, D. 2015. Are neonicotinoid insecticides driving declines of widespread butterflies? PeerJ 3, e1402.