ROTHAMSTED QUESTIONS EU PESTICIDE BAN AS CHEMICALS INDUSTRY EYES BREXIT FOR BREAKTHROUGH ON BEES
Rothamsted calls for broad studies of crop protection as pesticide ban threatens more damage.
Maintaining production of many UK crops is at risk if neonicotinoids, the pesticides linked with harming bees, are more widely restricted or banned completely, says Rothamsted Research in a position statement published today (see Notes to Editor).
“Furthermore, if groups of chemistries are limited by legislation, the remaining groups will be more widely used, resulting in an increased risk of pests developing resistance to them,” continues the statement from Rothamsted, the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world.
The institute’s concern follows the release of draft proposals by the EU to replace its temporary restriction on the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that flower, introduced in 2013 in response to disputed claims about the impact of the pesticides on bees, with a widespread ban across Europe.
In the UK, the “restricted use” ban affected mainly oilseed rape crops. “It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain production of many crops if neonicotinoids are more widely restricted or banned completely,” says the Rothamsted statement.
“For example, in sugar beet, the control of aphids and the virus diseases they spread, is totally reliant on neonicotinoid seed treatments because the aphids are resistant to other control chemistries,” it notes.
The statement also highlights how the neonicotinoid ban has cost the European oilseed rape farming industry €900million a year, according to the European Crop Protection Association, which represents chemicals companies.
Rothamsted chronicles the public debate over the past four years about the use of pesticides and, in particular, the effect of neonicotinoids on bees, whose important role as pollinators of crops and flora in general is not disputed.
The institute laments the lack of evidence for the pesticide restrictions, drawing attention to the number of reports by vested interests from both sides of the debate.
Rothamsted also draws attention to an analysis by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, an independent levy board funded by farmers, growers and industry, that considers how EU pesticide regulations could change in a post-Brexit UK. “Change is possible”, says the AHDB, “and the industry needs to think ahead regarding what it wants and needs to compete effectively in a changing global trading environment, as well as satisfying consumer preferences in a domestic market.”
The institute’s statement concludes by re-iterating its call in 2014 for “a proper science-led risk assessment to understand the effects of pesticides...This will help us balance the risks and benefits for crop protection, crop pollination, ecosystem function and our health appropriately.”
In today’s statement, Rothamsted notes: “It is vital that research is done to study crop protection in its broadest sense, combining conventional chemical control with better surveillance of pests, weeds and diseases, understanding and mitigating for pesticide resistance and developing next generation crop protection.”
Rothamsted Position Statement
Bees and neonicotinoids: seeking an alternative to the pesticide ban
There are two sides to the debate over the value of pesticides; one promotes their positive role in protecting crops and food security, the other highlights their potentially negative effects on the environment and on harmless, non-target organisms. One particular group of pesticides, the widely-used neonicotinoids, has stimulated lively debate because of its alleged harmful impact on bees, the beneficial and significant pollinators of crops and flora in general. Much of this debate appears in often contradictory reports that come from individuals and organisations with vested interests, on both sides of the divide.
We would like to argue for independent, unbiased research.
In December 2013, the EU restricted the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that flower; in the UK, this restriction affects mainly oilseed rape (OSR). The proposal was not supported by the UK Government, which opposed it and then abstained on the second vote.
Following the decision, Rothamsted issued a public statement in May 2014 (https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/role-pesticides-bee-decline). That statement concluded: “We need a proper science-led risk assessment to understand the effects of pesticides (and their active ingredients) on bees, whilst considering the effects on other pollinators (both wild and managed), within the context of farming practice and the wider ecosystem. This will help us balance the risks and benefits for crop protection, crop pollination, ecosystem function and our health appropriately. More work is required to get these data”
Later reports offered conflicting assessments of the effects of the EU ban. Friends of the Earth (FoE), the environmental organisation, concluded (https://www.foe.co.uk/page/growing-oilseed-rape-farming-with-without-neo...): “Our research found that combining a range of alternative techniques in a genuine Integrated Pest Management approach should enable farmers to significantly improve control of OSR pests without neonicotinoids.”
It should be noted that FoE did not report any research; it merely examined alternative pest management tools.
Another assessment, from the European Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers, stated: “The report found that the neonicotinoid ban has cost the European Oilseed Rape farming industry €900 million a year, including a yield loss of 4%, which translates to 912,000 tons of oilseed.”
It is no wonder that governments are finding it difficult to decide on whether to support a continued restriction on the use of neonicotinoids.
To this end, the UK House of Commons Library published a research briefing in March (http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06656) that looked at many aspects of the “Bees and neonicotinoids” story. The briefing noted: “For policy-makers and other concerned bodies, the situation remains contested and unclear: an October 2015 review statement by a group of pollinator experts concluded that the evidence still does not provide a clear steer for policy-makers in relation to neonicotinoids.”
The review statement, to which the briefing refers, is one of the few peer-reviewed papers on this topic; it was published by The Royal Society (http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1818/20151821). The paper, funded by the Oxford Martin School, was written by a group of academics, which included a senior scientist from Rothamsted, some of whose work is funded by pesticide manufacturers.
When the Royal Society paper was published, Rothamsted called for “an evidence-driven debate over whether a widely used type of insecticide is to blame for declines in bees and other insect pollinators” (https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/role-pesticides-bee-decline). We have since commented further at meetings in the UK and in Brussels.
In late March, The Guardian newspaper revealed another development in the debate, under the heading “Europe poised for total ban on bee-harming pesticides” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/23/europe-poised-for-to...). The story referred to draft regulations from the European Commission; these draft regulations have now been made available (http://g8fip1kplyr33r3krz5b97d1.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploa... ).
This development is probably the most worrying proposal to date. It implies that the existing restrictions on neonicotinoids will continue (despite the inconclusive evidence about their effect) and indeed be extended. Such a move would create issues for other crops in the UK. For example, in sugar beet, control of aphids and the virus diseases they spread, is totally reliant on neonicotinoid seed treatments because the aphids are resistant to other control chemistries.
Overall, in Rothamsted’s view, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain production of many UK crops if neonicotinoids are more widely restricted or banned completely. Furthermore, if groups of chemistries are limited by legislation, the remaining groups will be more widely used, resulting in an increased risk of pests developing resistance to them.
This analysis is true for many pesticides, known officially as plant protection products (PPPs). The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), an independent levy board funded by farmers, growers and industry, has looked at the position of PPPs after Brexit (http://www.ahdb.org.uk/documents/Horizon_Brexit_Analysis_january2017.pdf). It concluded: “Since a policy needs to be in place at the point of exit, it would appear likely that the vast majority of PPP regulations will be ‘lifted and shifted’’ as part of ‘The Great Repeal Bill’. However, following this, change is possible and the industry needs to think ahead regarding what it wants and needs to compete effectively in a changing global trading environment, as well as satisfying consumer preferences in a domestic market.”
Meanwhile, in Rothamsted’s view, it is vital that research is done to study crop protection in its broadest sense, combining conventional chemical control with better surveillance of pests, weeds and diseases, understanding and mitigating for pesticide resistance and developing next generation crop protection. These issues are all part of the institute’s strategic programme, Smart Crop Protection.
About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.