The Guardian newspaper has recently reported that a common neonicotinoid has a dramatic effect on songbirds at very low doses.
This emphasises how our use of agricultural chemicals can have unintended consequences, and the importance of the Precautionary Principle. Birds aren’t the target species – they’re not even insects!
Neonicotinoids were originally authorised for use on the basis of being used as spot treatments when there was a pest problem in an area – ‘Integrated Pest Management’ – but have become used more routinely (‘prophylactically’), contaminating large areas of countryside with highly persistent toxins. They were so widely used (until the EU partial ban) that it became very difficult to find uncontaminated areas to do control experiments on, to gauge their effect.
Most honeys around the world now have detectable levels of neonicotinoids in them, even though the manufacturers assured people bees wouldn’t be exposed. (As discussed before, it turns out neonics are expressed in plants’ nectar and pollen; and leach into flowering weeds on field margins; and last much longer in soil than claimed so even if they are only used on non-flowering crops, they are re-expressed by subsequent crops and other plants.)
There is a strong suspicion that neonics are involved in the 75% decline in insects noted in a 27 year study of German nature reserves. Note this is in nature reserves, not in the general countryside where one might assume it to be even worse.
The manufacturers have consistently claimed their tests showed neonics were safe, but in retrospect one might conclude that it’s almost as if the research they submitted to support their use when introduced was deliberately avoiding looking for effects in non target species. Syngenta and Bayer spent a lot of money promoting their products and trying to discredit reputable researchers, and the National Farmers Union and British Bee Keepers’ Association fought against neonic bans (which is particularly notable when every other insect protection group in the UK was trying to prevent neonic use).
It is to be welcomed that the UK government’s position has changed under the new environment secretary Michael Gove, who has written of how convincing he finds the mounting evidence and that the UK will support further restrictions on neonicotinoids.