Celebrate the victories, face the challenges

2 May, 2013

Monday was a very good day for bees.

The EU, for once, stood on the side of the angels and voted to suspend the use of three toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. But the victory came with conditions.

The suspension is only for two years. It could be reversed if, in the interim, scientific data can show neonics are, after all, not harmful. Most importantly, it leaves a raft of other neonics – not to mention other harmful pesticides – still in use.

Nevertheless, in the face of fierce and underhanded lobbying by the chemical companies and what can only be called government collusion (see story opposite) the move was bold and undeniably the right thing to do.

Of course, after the celebrations there is sober reflection. There are approximately 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for use in the UK. Some 80% of all pesticides are used in agriculture and the widespread harm caused to pollinators and other wildlife as well as humans, does not begin and end with neonics.

As stalwart campaigner Georgina Downs of the UK Pesticides Campaign pointed out shortly after the news of the EU decision was made public:  “The reality is that there is a whole cocktail of pesticides used in food production every year”.

And while researchers continue to study the harmful effects of pesticides one single dose at a time, the real world cocktail to which all of us are exposed is complex and risky.

How bad could it be? Human studies continue to show that we carry dozens of chemicals in our bodies that shouldn’t be there. In 2010 US researchers found residues of 121 different pesticides within 887 wax, pollen, bee and associated hive samples.

The potential effects of that combination is almost impossible to study. But in 2012 scientists reporting in Nature studied the effects of exposure to a combination of just two pesticides on bumblebees under field realistic conditions.

Bumblebee nests exposed to the neonics produced fewer adult workers, damaged the foraging ability of worker bees and killed many before they managed to get back to the hive. The pyrethroid pesticide led to the deaths of worker bees.

But exposure to both pesticides delivered a one-two punch, which the scientists said increased the likelihood of entire colonies perishing.

Humans are no less vulnerable. In the UK a Royal Commission in 2005 declared that it was “unimpressed by the arrangements for monitoring human health” in the face of the cocktail of pesticides we are exposed to. It also noted that too few UK studies had looked “at possible associations between pesticides and serious diseases such as cancer and degenerative neurological disease”.

In 2009, after surveying pesticide-related illness found in Britain’s primary care system, UK researchers noted that pesticides and related chemicals include “mutagenic substances, carcinogens or probable carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxic and neurotoxic substances”  which have “undoubted acute health effects”.

And yet we continue to do nothing to protect ourselves or remedy the situation. It brings to mind a line from the iconic Simpsons: “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas”.

The obvious answer is to take pesticides out of the equation. Conventional farmers say it can’t be done and can’t even imagine a world without pesticides. Those who practice organic, biodynamic and permaculture methods of sustainable agroecological farming are already doing it. Let’s support and encourage them in every way we can and make the planet safer for ourselves and all the living things we share it with.

Pat Thomas, Editor