Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Have we learned nothing since 'Silent Spring'?

A A A

Nicotine, found in tobacco, is a deadly substance – and not only for smokers. It has long been known as a powerful natural insecticide, and its presence in the tobacco crop has evolved to deter pests; it is toxic to virtually all of them (except one, the Carolina sphinx moth, whose fat green caterpillar, known in the US as the tobacco hornworm, has evolved a way of dealing with it).

Nicotine is a neurotoxin, that is, it attacks the insect nervous system. In recent years, pesticide companies such as the German giant Bayer have developed a group of compounds which act in a similar way; they have been christened neonicotinoids ("new nicotine-like things"). Neonicotinoids are now among the most widely-used insecticides because they are very effective, and they are effective because they are "systemic". That means that they do not simply sit on the plant's surface but are taken up into the plant itself, so that any part of it becomes toxic to the aphid or other troublesome wee beastie attempting to feed upon it.

Unfortunately, when we say "any part", that is literally true: not only the stem and the leaves are contaminated but so, even at the heart of the plant's flowers, are its pollen and its nectar. And when pollinating insects come along to gather them, such as honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, moths, butterflies, or hoverflies, which are by no means the "target" species of the insecticide, they get a shot of poison nonetheless. They may get a tiny shot. But each time they buzz to a contaminated flower for more pollen or nectar, they get another one. And another one. And another one.

In the great mysterious crash of bee populations, which has been gathering speed around the world for the past decade or so, and which has started to alarm even governments because of the vast worth of bee pollination to the agricultural economy (more than £12bn annually just in Europe), neonicotinoids are increasingly suspect. In the great crash of other insect populations which has similarly been taking place, about which governments do not give a toss but which nonetheless threatens the natural environment with catastrophe (many insectivorous birds are dropping dramatically in numbers), neonicotinoids are similarly in the frame.

For they do not only pose problems through pollination. Neonicotinoids persist in the soil and have high leaching potential, meaning that they can not only harm soil organisms but can be washed out and end up contaminating water bodies, and they may be implicated in the enormous decline in aquatic insects such as mayflies which we have seen in recent years.

So how can such pesticides be licensed for use? In European countries, the initial licensing is done at European Union level by way of a Draft Assessment Report (DAR); but although the basic research for it is usually done by independent scientists, the organisation of the report – remarkably, you may think – is carried out by the manufacturer. So the DAR for the commonest neonicotinoid, which is called imidacloprid, was put together by Bayer, which makes imidacloprid, and which makes many millions of pounds from it every year. And guess what? Bayer's report found no reason why it should not be approved!

Fifteen months ago, however, the British invertebrate conservation charity Buglife conducted a review of all the available scientific literature about the effects of neonicotinoids, and imidacloprid in particular, on non-target insect species; this produced a much more troubling picture. Referring directly to 100 independent, peer-reviewed scientific papers, the Buglife study highlighted a raft of concerns that neonicotinoids are indeed harmful for bees and other pollinating insects, especially chronically (that is, through tiny doses ingested from repeated visits to contaminated flowers) – something which the testing methodology of the imidacloprid DAR, the Buglife study said, simply did not pick up.

These concerns have become widely shared, at the national level – France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have all banned neonicotinoids to a greater or lesser degree – and they have been further heightened by the recent leak of a confidential internal memo from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which warned that bees and other insects were at risk from another Bayer-produced neonicotinoid, currently on the market, called clothianidin.

The British response? Zero. At present, despite the concerns, about 30 products containing imidacloprid are cheerfully licensed for use on British farms and in British gardens. But then the British government, especially the present one, is very relaxed about pesticides, as was made clear by the junior environment minister, Lord Henley, in his response before Christmas to new EU legislation on sustainable pesticide use. He could have brought in various improvements on the back of it, such as a ban on pesticides near schools, playgrounds or hospitals, or a mandatory requirement to notify communities before pesticide spraying which might affect them. He chose to do nothing.

Yet many might think that applying substantial doses of poison to the landscape is hardly an issue to be relaxed about: get it wrong and the consequences are horrendous. Rachel Carson first showed us that 50 years ago next year when she published Silent Spring, the book which, in documenting the terrible toll pesticides were taking on American wildlife, effectively launched the modern environment movement. Carson's concern then was organochlorine substances, principally DDT. But looking at neonicotinoids, and the mounting evidence against them, and the persistence of their use, the thought is overwhelming: have we learned nothing in 50 years? Carson feared a world without birdsong; and here we are fearing a world without bees, half a century on.

The Buglife review can be found at: www.buglife.org.uk/Resources/Buglife/Neonicotinoid%20insecticides%20report.pdf

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick