Pesticides linked to mass bee deaths also affect other friendly organisms including birds and fish

Study's findings are in stark contrast to the UK Government’s stance on neonicotinoids

Science Editor

A A A

A class of pesticides linked to the decline of honeybees is also affecting a wide variety of other beneficial organisms such as earthworms and butterflies, according to a major study that directly contradicts the Government’s relaxed stance on the use of neonicotinoids.

A group of 29 scientists from four continents found unequivocal evidence from hundreds of published studies to claim that “neonics” – the most widely used pesticides in the world – are having a dramatic impact on the ecosystems that support food production and wildlife.

The independent researchers, who are also advisers to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have concluded that the “systemic” pesticides such as the neonicotinoids pose as great a risk to the environment as the banned pesticide DDT, and other persistent organophosphates.

The findings of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, published today, are in stark contrast to the UK Government’s stance on neonicotinoids, which is that there is not enough evidence to ban their use or to support the EU’s proposed moratorium in Europe.

The taskforce, set up four years ago, analysed 800 peer-reviewed scientific reports on neonicotinoids and fibronil, another type of systemic pesticide, a group of pesticides that are absorbed by all parts of a plant, including roots, leaves, flowers, fruit and even nectar and pollen.

One of the lead authors of the report, Jean-Marc Bonmartin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, said that the published evidence of the link between neonics and damage to wildlife and the environment was now clear.

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates and DDT,” Dr Bonmartin said.

“Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem,” he said.

The report, called the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, found that neonics posed a risk not just to honeybees but to a variety of other animals, such as soil-conditioning earthworms, aquatic invertebrates and even birds and fish.

Key findings from the assessment found that neonics accumulate in the soil and persist for months and in some cases for years. The breakdown products are often as toxic – or more toxic – than the pesticide’s active ingredients, which are designed to work as poisonous nerve agents.

“If you use them every year they accumulate, they get into the soil water and hence into streams. So essentially we are contaminating the global environment with highly toxic, highly persistent chemicals,” said David Goulson, professor of biology at Sussex University and one of the report’s authors.

“The focus to date has been on honeybees but it’s clear that the impacts of neonics are more profound than that. The story goes far beyond bees. It goes to all wildlife that lives on farmland,” Professor Goulson said.

Neonicotinoids affects all parts of a plant, including pollen and flowers Neonicotinoids affects all parts of a plant, including pollen and flowers (AP)

Maarten Bijleveld van Lexmond, who chaired the research, said: “The findings of the [assessment] are gravely worrying. We can now clearly see that neonics and fibronil pose a risk to ecosystem functioning and services which go far beyond concerns about one species and which really must warrant government and regulatory attention.”

Contrary to Government assertions, the scientists found published evidence to suggest that relatively low levels of neonics, similar to concentrations found in the field, can affect bee navigation, learning, food collection, longevity, resistance to disease and fertility.

An assessment of neonics last year by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded that under normal circumstances there are no effects on bees, although it is not possible to rule out “rare effects”.

Defra scientists also found that laboratory-based studies showing sub-lethal effects on bees from neonics do not represent realistic exposure levels and conditions in the open air. “Consequently… the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low,” they said.

Neonicotinoids: What's affected?

The study by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides is a meta-analysis of about 800 published scientific papers on the “systemic” pesticides known as neonicotinoids and fibronil. This class of agro-chemicals are designed to permeate the entire crop plant, from roots to leaves and flowers, to ward off insect pests. However the task force has identified potential problems with a number of other animals:

Bees and other insect pollinators

Neonics are nerve poisons and can impair the sense of smell or memory that are essential for navigation in bees and other insect pollinators, such as butterflies.

Terrestrial invertebrates

Earthworms are critical for the health of soil yet they can also be affected by neonics, according to the study. Research shows that the pesticides can alter the tunnelling behaviour of earthworms.

Aquatic invertebrates

Neonics can be found in soil moisture and so can be washed into streams and rivers. The most affected group in the aquatic environment were freshwater snails and water fleas.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links