My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Those with long memories might remember a guest post from our Head of Conservation Science last April on neonicotinoids (see here). Concern was growing that use of these insecticides was accidentally harming honeybees and other beneficial insects.
Since then a lot has happened. Scientists across Europe have continued to investigate whether neonics really are a threat to bees, policy makers have debated their findings, and the chemical companies that manufacture these products have increasingly been on the defensive.
The question all along has been: should farmers carry on using neonicotinoids given this possible risk? It’s not a simple question to answer. Neonics aren’t like the old chemicals that were sprayed onto the crop and (in many cases) killed practically any insect they came into contact with. Neonics have much more subtle effects. They are usually applied to the seeds and then spread into the plant – so they’re present inside the crop as it grows. They are extremely toxic to pests that eat the plant (that’s the idea), but what no one realised was that even tiny amounts can affect the behaviour of bees that merely sip the nectar or gather the pollen from the crop.
There are lots of factors making life harder for bees – diseases, parasites, loss of habitat, weather – it’s very difficult to determine what effect neonics might be having on top of all this. If neonics were banned, would farmers have to go back to the old sprays, and would that be better or worse for the bees overall?
The RSPB has been following the debate and doing a lot of thinking. One of the questions we have considered is, “What would farmers do if neonics were banned?” If farmers decided simply to switch to different chemicals, like pyrethroids, for example, what would be the environmental consequences?
The conclusion we have reached, having weighed up all the evidence available to us, is that the risk from neonics to pollinators probably outweighs the risks from the alternatives. The evidence that honeybees are at risk from neonics is now pretty clear. While there are known dangers from pyrethroids, like spray drift and pollution of waterways, these can be mitigated by good practice.
So given the increasingly strong evidence for harm to pollinators and in line with the precautionary principle, the RSPB is joining calls on the UK government to suspend all approvals for uses of neonicotinoid insecticides on crops that are attractive to pollinating insects. This includes flowering arable crops such as oilseed rape and beans, crops that exude contaminated sap such as maize, and horticultural crops such as fruit and flowers. Approval should also be suspended for neonicotinoid-based products sold for ‘amateur’ use by gardeners and these products immediately removed from the market.
The RSPB works with plenty of farmers who are fully aware of the importance of providing safe habitat for pollinators and protecting water courses. We believe that, with proper support from government and industry, farmers could manage the transition away from neonicotinoids in a way that is good for bees and the wider environment. We’re already trying this approach on our own land – there certainly are challenges to farming without neonics, but it’s do-able.
While we’ve been scratching our heads, others in Europe have been doing the same, and last month an important report was published that recommended a ban of three commonly-used neconics from use on crops that are attractive to bees (which would include oilseed rape, but not wheat, for example). The European Commission has taken this report on board. At a meeting on 25 February, Member States will vote on whether to impose these restrictions.
The Commission’s proposal would also limit neonic use to professional users, which would stop companies selling neonic-based products to amateur gardeners. Given the conclusions we have reached, the RSPB fully supports the Commission’s proposals.
Under the weighted voting system, the UK’s vote will be an important deciding factor on whether Commission’s proposal is carried. The UK government therefore has an important decision to make next Monday. I have some sympathy for them as the science is tough. However, the RSPB’s position is the result of a lot of research and thought, and I truly believe that it is the right one.
The European Commission’s proposals to restrict neonic use would be an important step towards protecting our bees. We shall be working with partners, such as Buglife, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association to ensure the UK Government plays a leading role in tackling this issue rather than kicking the ball into the (bee-unfriendly) long grass.
Do you support our call to ban the use of neonics on flowering crops?
It would be great to hear your views.
Photo credit: Bumble bee Bombus terrestris, pollenating oil seed rape flowers - Richard Revels (rspb-images.com)
Quick update: the European vote on neonicotinoids has been put back to 14- 15 March. And given the quality of your comments, I thought I'd offer some observations in return.
Redkite, thanks as ever for your support. I think you have a good point about the need for more rigorous testing of pesticides and other products. The neonics issue has highlighted some of the shortcomings of the current EU pesticide testing regime – see the Pesticide Action Network’s excellent factsheet for details: bees.pan-uk.org/what-can-you-do (third one down). The European Food Safety Authority is currently working on improving the risk assessment process for bees, which is good news.
Peter, You make an important point about the precautionary principle. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, this is an approach enshrined in EU law that allows for a rapid response in the face of possible danger where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of the risk. The interpretation of the precautionary principle has played a big role in the wider debate over neonics and in our own policy decisions. Clearly the principle must be used appropriately to avoid it becoming a block to any sort of change or progress. Our dilemma has been whether there was sufficient evidence of risk to bees from neonics to ban these chemicals, compared on the other hand to the risk to bees from the consequences of such a ban (e.g. a mass switch to pyrethroids). We have now reached the point where we believe the balance of evidence does point to the need to stop using neonics on crops that attract pollinators. The risk remains unquantified (we believe it’s big but we don’t know how big), but the precautionary principle allows us to take action without waiting for more data. On your point about the Parliamentary Select Committee – we submitted written evidence to their inquiry back in November, and we have written to them to inform them of our current thinking. They have their final oral evidence session today (27th February) after which they will go away and consider the evidence they have received. This has been a very thorough and rigorous inquiry and I hope it will prove influential in UK policy.
Sooty, birds are not independent of the rest of nature – as Birdz ‘n Bees points out, declines in insects will inevitably affect the birds that eat them. We cannot save birds without tackling the underlying causes of their decline. As we don’t have unlimited resources we have to pick our fights: we have decided that the threat posed by neonics, and the wider questions about pesticide use and farming that this issue raises, is significant enough that it’s a fight worth having. This is definitely a ‘birds problem’ as you put it. There are indeed other organisations and countries looking into this problem. However the nature of the EU decision making process means that a majority has to agree before action is taken. The UK vote carries a lot of weight in the EU ‘qualified majority’ voting process. So it is important that we in the UK try to influence our government to do the right thing.
‘Stealing the thunder’ of Buglife et al is the last thing we want to do. Conservation NGOs aren’t rivals, they’re friends/partners working together for the same cause, albeit with a different focus. As I mentioned in my post, we’re working very closely with Buglife and others on this issue, because we all agree we’re more effective together than individually. You can see the joint letter we sent to Mr Paterson, signed by no less than 12 NGOs, here: ejfoundation.org/.../557
Birdz ‘n Bees, welcome and thanks for your comments (and disturbingly vivid imagery – pesticide soaked buttocks ..!). Sorry you don’t like my title – I do try to inject some humour into this blog but rest assured we take the issues themselves very seriously indeed. You raise some very valid points, but I think we have to be careful about saying that neonics (or any other one factor) are “the” cause of wildlife declines. The evidence is showing that neonics may be contributing to declines of some species, and that is why RSPB is calling for restrictions on their use. However, birds and other wildlife have been declining for a lot longer than neonics have been around, and there is very clear evidence linking these declines with a range of changes in farming practices. It is worth pointing out that the ecological health of rivers in England and Wales (as measured by the invertebrates living in them) has improved significantly since the 1990s. This is an overall trend and masks a lot of variation between individual rivers, but still it is not consistent with a wholesale crash in invertebrate populations caused by the introduction of neonicotinoids. So we are going to do our best on neonicotinoids but we will also continue to work with farmers and policymakers on the bigger picture.
Rob, I couldn’t agree more that we as consumers must understand where our food comes from and the role we play in the food system. I plan to write more on this soon. I also agree that we need to be aware of possible financial impacts of our policy decisions. I have to say I don’t buy the scaremongering stories put about by certain sections of industry – the so-called Humboldt report on the financial value of neonicotinoids has been widely criticised as unscientific and unrealistic (e.g. see FOE’s briefing: www.foe.co.uk/.../bees_humboldt_briefing.pdf). One thing it fails to take account of is the possible cost of not banning neonicotinoids – if they are indeed causing declines in pollinators, the costs could be huge (the annual cost if we had to pollinate crops by hand in the UK has been estimated at £1.8 billion – this is a service that honeybees and wild insects currently provide basically for free). Another point I’m not sure it addresses is that pest resistance to neonicotinoids is already emerging. If you rely too much on one chemical, it gets less and less effective as pest populations evolve resistance to it. Even if there were not the concerns about bees, farmers and the pesticides industry should urgently be looking to alternatives to neonicotinoids that will be needed in the near future. The argument being made by the RSPB and others is that this future alternative should not be just another chemical, but a system of integrated pest management that uses a range of non-chemical and (where necessary) chemical tools to manage pest populations sustainably. Otherwise we’re just going to find ourselves in the same mess again a few years down the line. The RSPB is campaigning for more sustainable pesticide policy in the UK – the issue of banning neonics is just one part of this. I would argue that any short-term costs to this policy will be massively outweighed by the long term benefits.
But thanks again for all your comments. This debate will run for a little longer I think...
Neonics could well have an impact on bees and I agree stricter testing is required for possible long term impacts (along with other study of how honey bees affect wild bee pollinators www.beeguardianfoundation.org/why-beeguardians-are-needed.html)
However, we do need to realise that there could be a financial cost to us the consumer. Neonics are financially cheap pesticides driven by a need/our demand for yields of crops required for affordable food - farming methods are not important per say, it's the yield (see this research re organic/conventional farming & biodiversity - www.scribd.com/.../Food-production-vs-biodiversity-comparing-organic-conventional-agriculture-Benton-et-al)
Yes, we can ban these 'nasty' chemicals which may well have an impact on bees (vital as pollinators) but we will then have to be ready to face a potential increase in food costs while more expensive pesticides are tested and when other demands and land uses are also restricting agricultural production.
It is complex; as we spend less on food from our income, we have externalised the environmental cost of food and natural capital - as noted by comments from experts et al on my Times letter re 'cheap' food:
I feel strongly that we must connect ourselves, as consumers with our consumption choices and their effects on the environment. Conservation NGOs cannot hide from highlighting these, at time, unpalatable and uncomfortable facts. It is no good getting close to nature without realising that our own grocery basket is part of the equation in reducing the pressure on the countryside - the home of affordable food and precious wildlife.
While I rejoice at the fact that the RSPB has finally taken at least one pesticide-drenched buttock of the fence, I really wish it would haul the other one down as well, and start leading the fight instead of trailing along in the dust behind the battle, which is over the horizon.
Martin Harper's blog confirms that the RSPB still has a long way to go in grasping the true enormity of the wildlife catastrophe t that neonicotinoids are inflicting. More than 10,000,000 bee colonies have died across the USA since 2003 - and some beekeepers I correspond with say the number is nearer 20,000,000 when you take 'running repairs' into account (beekeepers can 'split' surviving hives to create new hives in Spring. Since there are 50,000 bees in a hive, that makes about 500 billion dead bees. Of course, we have no idea how many billions of bumbebees, butterflies, hoverflies, lacewings, ladybirds and solitary bees they have killed, but you can bet it is far, far more.
In 1994 the French lost 1,000,000 bee colonies due to the introduction of neonicotinoids on sunflowers. The pesticide companies denied responsibility but the French govt convened a 'royal commission' which examined 243 scientific papers in 1999. They concluded that neonics were the cause and banned them in 2000AD. Despite a massive lobby and PR effort from Bayer and Syngenta, the French have held to their 'science based policy' and have never rescinded the ban.
In the same period - from 1992 to 2012, a recent report from the EU notes that 300 million birds have disappeared from Europe - and in the UK, the BTO/ RSPB report that 19 common farmland-bird species have declined by between 50% and 80%.
Many of us feel that there is overwehlming scientific evidence in paper after paper, going back all the way to 1994, that these hyper-toxic, systemic insecticides are at the root of all this.
They are so hyper-toxic (Imidacloprid is almost 8,000 times more toxic than DDT) that they effectively erase all insect/ invertebrate life from the countryside: not just in the crop itself, but in the soil beneath, in the water ditches, ponds, streams and rivers.
If there are no insects in the UK farm lanscape there will be no food for insectiverous birds o feed their chicks. Sparrows apparently feed their chicks a diet of about 98% aphids in the first week of life; no aphids = no sparrows.
Here is a download link to a good overview article:
So, although Martin's blog is a very welcome improvement, I think his title is a little off-colour.
His phrase 'let's not get our neonics in a twist' is a casual attempt at humour. i'm not sure whether the death of 20 million bee colonies, (along with billions of butterflies, bumblebees, frogs, amphibians, bats etc) in addition to unprecedented declines in most British insectivorous birds, is an appropriate subject for humour. From where I stand, it is a deadly serious issue, and I heartily wish that the RSPB was pulling its knickers from over its eyes, to try and get a clear view of the issues, because that is where the RSPB appears to have been wearing its 'pesticide knickers' for the last decade.
Whatever is the RSPB playing at ignoring lots of problems British birds have while getting into Badger protection and now Bees plus various other diversions.Every minute or hour or days,weeks, months spent on these things mean you are not spending that time on birds problems.
There are other organisations,country's looking into this chemical and the conclusion that it is seriously dangerous is far from proven.
Whether it is or not my concern is it is nothing to do with RSPB unless you change your name to embrace a wider perspective which will mean loss of lots of membership so stick to what most of us want which is our subs used for bird protection and reserves to walk round.
We already have Badger Trust and Buglife or something you are beginning to thinnk you are bigger than both of those and stealing there thunder.
It has occurred to me also that pyretheum was hailed by my father as the future some 45 years ago as he happily played his part in the post imperial retreat "Out of Africa and West of Suez". Where has RSPB been in those two generations? One of my formative policy experiences was watching the Soil Ass trying to persuade RSPB that farming without pesticides and artificial fertilisers might be beneficial for wildlife; it took them over a decade to the mid/late 1990's ! As with the post above above what happened to the "precautionary principle" ? Or is RSPB policy effectively to wait until such evidence appears in the environment ?
On the evidence here I would say that that question is hanging over RSPB policy in this area post war..............humph. Is this "turn around" in time to influence the Parliamentary Select Ctte investigation that I noted in the Press or after it ?
hi, I am pleased that RSPB has moved here; it can not say it was at the "cutting edge"; it was far more tardy and conservative than many EU governments and was beginning to look "exposed"............... I am also pleased because I shall never forget the delightful picture of pyretheum flowering in the Kenya Highlands; good for us , good for Kenya too.
Hi Martin, I fully support the RSPB's call to ban the use of neonics on flowering crops. I would just like to say, as well, what a well balanced and informative blog this is, as I am sure the RSPB's actual investigation itself has been. More excellent work by the RSPB showing that it does not just concern itself with birds. Let's hope the Government takes a positive line and supports the RSPB's calls and the EU Commissions proposals. (They jolly well should).
There is however a broader message here and it is similar to the ash die back from imported trees, New Zealand pigmy weed and very many other similar occurences and that is, how do we get ourselves in these messes in the first place? There is simply not enough testing and control of commercial products and commercial practices BEFORE they are allowed to take place or be used. The Government and the EU must be much, much more rigorous in making sure and specifying that commercial products are tested by the manufacturer much more thoroughly before their use and that every test is passed. The commercial manufacturer or operater should pay for the more indepth testing.