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
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone