The decision to frame the argument over neonicotinoids as pro- or anti-pesticide ignores the myriad options
In London last Friday, research scientists, chemical industry representatives, and journalists gathered for an open discussion session that concluded a three-day summit about the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybees. The result was a rich debate about the future use of these chemicals in agriculture, and implications for food production. But the efforts by some industry representatives to oversimplify the issue gave an otherwise intricate discussion the aura of a highly polarised one.
Neonicotinoids, which are widely used in Europe and America, are applied as a coating on seeds of crops like oilseed rape, maize, and sunflowers before they are planted, in this way protecting the plant from the start. But since this class of chemicals was linked with a decline in honey- and bumblebee health in 2012, followed by The European Commission's imposed restrictions on specific uses of neonicontinoids soon after, they have been recognised more for the controversy they are associated with than anything else.
The science cannot definitively link neonicotinoid impact on individual pollinators to the widespread, overall decline of honeybee populations going on in Europe and America—the phenomenon labelledColony Collapse Disorder. But a growing body of research on the subject is helping to cement the concerns of conservationists and scientists alike. Friday's open discussion helped air those concerns, and yet, these were foregrounded against a controversial industry suggestion that if we stop using neonicotinoids, we essentially commit to a future of environmental ruin.
Speaking during his presentation on behalf of Bayer CropScience—the company that makes imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid-based pesticide—environmental safety manager Richard Schmuck concluded his talk by stating that not only will food production dip dramatically if we stop using neonicotinoids, but that in an effort to make up for lowered production, countries will have to convert untouched wild land into crops and 'import' land from developing world countries. That will result in decreased biodiversity in Europe, America, and abroad, he said.
This rather extreme argument gives us just two options: a world with pesticides, or one without. But it misrepresents the approach of scientists and several conservation groups, and also contradicts what the chemical industries themselves say.
"I think it's just an oversimplification by the industry to suit their message," says Sandra Bell, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK who was present at Friday's meeting. "We're not necessarily talking about banning every pesticide. We're talking about minimising the use." A speaker at the conference, University of Sussex Professor David Goulson, leader of one of the research groups that found neonicotinoid impacts on pollinators in 2012, agreed, adding that in order to grow enough food to feed an increasing world population, he recognised that chemicals would inevitably be part of the mix.
But the binary pesticide/no pesticide scenario overwrites a third option: using pesticides together with other controls. This is one aspect of integrated pest management (IPM), touted as a 'common sense' approach to farming. "IPM is not a system that doesn't use pesticides at all," says Goulson, "but you try and minimise the pesticides and only ever use them responsibly, and as a last resort." This ideal contrasts starkly with the current reality of crops that receive up to 22 pesticides at a time.
Rotation-cropping, organic farming, production of pest-resistant crops, and the use of state-funded agronomists to evaluate land and apply tailored pest control, were all raised as alternative management options during the open debate. Matthias Schott, a PhD student at the University of Giessen in Germany, who was there to present a poster about whether bees can sense neonicotinoids, suggested that in an ideal future, farmers would be given financial incentives for avoiding unnecessary pesticide use. Currently, he says, "there is no possibility for farmers to get pesticide-undressed seeds from the big companies. Therefore most agricultural land is exposed to insecticides."
Bayer CropScience notes that alternatives are part of its portfolio, too. "We are very open to finding the right synthesis between integrated pest management and pesticides," said Bayer's global pollinator safety manager, Dr. Christian Maus, adding that it is necessary to establish a pesticide's compatibility with IPM before it goes on the market. (He spoke on behalf of Richard Schmuck who was traveling and not available for an interview.)
The reality, of course, is that the pesticide/no pesticide split exists because there is no financial incentive right now to mould things differently. Alternative methods of pest control get little funding, and less research. "There's no profit to be made for anyone who develops anything like that," says Goulson. "So really, most research into how to farm is focused on high-tech solutions that can be sold by the people that manufacture them."
The UK government's seemingly tight-knit relationship with major chemical company Syngenta has only intensified the frustrations felt by those seeking alternatives. Industry-funded studies that find no neonicotinoid impact are a target for critics, and researchers highlight the general scarcity of peer-reviewed science on the subject.
Indeed, the confident conclusion in Schmuck's presentation that a future without pesticides will amount to a loss of virgin land and biodiversity comes from an industry document that he cited in his talk. "It was a report by the agrochemical industry," says Goulson. "I would strongly imagine it has no credibility whatsoever." Yet, says Maus, everything Bayer CropScience publishes is independently regulated, whether it appears in a journal or not. "Our data are scrutinised," he states.
From an industry standpoint, an oft-raised criticism during the open discussion was that the lab studies showing detrimental effects of pesticides on pollinators do not suitably imitate real life. Goulson accepts that there is a level of superficiality associated with any laboratory experiments, but he raises two salient points: one, that it's incredibly difficult and expensive to do successful control experiments on bees in the field, and two, that the chemical industry's own pesticide safety tests were done in the lab. "If [field conditions] are what's necessary to show whether something creates harm or not, then why didn't they do it?" Goulson says.
The sparring between scientists and industry may strengthen the appearance of a stark pro- and anti-pesticide division. But choosing to frame the debate in this way is shortsighted. The advent of the EU's sustainable use directive for pesticides in 2009, which sets out rules for use in EU countries, indicates that the argument can no longer—and probably never has—run firmly along the lines of pesticides vs. no pesticides: the directive is founded on the notion that the use of chemicals can be minimised and combined with other methods of control.
With this in mind, Bell from Friends of the Earth hopes to see a significant portion of the UK's recent £160 million investment in agricultural science and technology channelled towards management of pesticide use—because there have to be more than two options.
The binary argument over neonicotinoids, no matter how superficial, denies the role that creativity has to play in finding other solutions. It perpetuates a threatening rhetoric in which the obvious pressure exists to stick with the status quo. "It's about a lack of investment in the right kind of research," says Bell. "If several years ago more money had been directed towards [alternatives] we might not be in this situation now."