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Bees and agriculture – saving bees beyond banning pesticides

Bees and agriculture – saving bees beyond banning pesticides

Conservationists and beekeepers waited for this day to come: on April 27th, the European Commission banned some neonicotinoids in the EU. This step also was a consequence of acknowledging their risk for bees. A few days ago, there was a call by more than 200 scientists to ban these pesticides also in other countries. In fact, an isolated action in Europe wouldn’t have a sustainable impact: Europe’s agriculture makes only a small part of the use worldwide. But also this claim may not be enough. As I already discussed last month, farmers may just switch to other insecticides, if the banned substances aren’t available anymore. Therefore, we have to stop talking about single substances and start talking about structures and systems. Otherwise, we risk to get stuck in a discussion about details, positions and interests instead of more sustainable agriculture.

The special risk of agriculture

First of all, I want to stress the importance of agriculture. Everybody should be conscious about that farmers feed us and, therefore, their work should be honoured sufficiently. We don’t change anything just blaming farmers because they do their work like they do. I clearly remember a farmer at a meeting with beekeepers saying: “As long as we’re working according to current law, I would appreciate not to be treated like a criminal.”. I couldn’t agree more.

However, it’s more and more obvious that intense agriculture is reducing biodiversity. Pesticides are a part of the problem. Other aspects to address are uniform landscapes, fertilizers, erosion etc. But let’s stay with plant protection. Pesticides are meant to kill. They already tell it in their name: pesticide means pest killer. As I’m a language nerd: -cide comes from Latin caedere, still seen in  Italian in the word “uccidere”, meaning to kill. Applying these substances to large areas like fields and orchards, bears a higher risk than the use of chemicals in other uses. Therefore, the regulation of these substances is extremely restrictive. In Europe, every plant protection product has to pass a large series of tests and studies before registration.

However, every system needs a review from time to time. This may be the right moment to do so in the regulation and use ofpesticides. If farmers just switch to other products, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem. There must be incentives and help for more sustainable farming systems. A first step was done already in 2009: European regulation already asks for integrated pest management (IPM). The problem is to implement these rules.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

There are several points to criticise in the current practice of using and regulating pesticides. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (in Germany) published a discussion paper on this. To relate to all the topics they discuss would go to far, so I absolutely recommend reading it. It’s available both in German and English. One thing I’d like to point out though, is the need to think in systems instead of details. If we focus on single substances, we just cure symptoms, not the disease.

As mentioned above, the registration process of pesticides needs a large amount of studies. They should demonstrate that they don’t harm non-target organisms and that they don’t remain in the environment for long. However, there are many examples that residues remain for longer in the soil or that there is exposure that wasn’t considered during the registration process. This is no surprise: it’s infeasible to test or imagine all possible scenarios. But, considering the current agricultural practice would be a first step. For instance, the evaluation of pesticides considers the single substances. On the other hand, farmers often apply a mix of different products in one treatment. And many products contain more than one active substance, so-called combination products. Including the most common mixtures in the testing procedure would be a huge step forward.

Monitoring studies and incentives for IPM

Another deficient aspect of the current regulation is the use of “model organisms”. For pollinators, these are honey bees. There are also tests for non-target arthropods, that should cover all other insects, spiders etc. But, as with testing single substances, this gives only a glimpse on the ecosystems in which the substances may finish. It’s again impossible to test the effects of every pesticide on every bee or even insect species. But, acknowledging that the effects on a wild bee species is different than those on honey bees is a first step. Specially, as there is scientific evidence for this.

So how continue with this pesticide issue? The Leopoldina paper gives some helpful suggestions. One of them is to perform more post-registration monitorings. They refer to residue analysis, but this concept also applies for bees. Many predictions about the impact of pesticides are given after modelling. Monitorings would verify the models and feed them with with real data and, therefore, making them better. In addition, these studies help to answer a lot of “what if…?”-questions. What if the weather is an additional stress factor for the bee populations (increasingly important with climate change)? Or if the honey bee density affects wild pollinators? These and many more questions may or may not change the effect that pesticides produce on bees.

Finally, there is also the social aspect. In my opinion – and I’m glad that the illustrious Leopoldina agrees on this-, we need a mind shift. Pesticides are the easiest, fastest and often most efficient way for farmers to address pests. The core principle of IPM is to use them only when necessary and as little as possible. Without incentives and intensive training this will be difficult. In my opinion, the latter is the far more important.

A hopeful outlook

I once did a course that allows me to apply pesticides. Not because I had the intention to do so, but to know what I’m talking about when speaking to farmers. The teachers in this course tried to convince the young farmers to use IPM, but this caused little more than a smile. This doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in biodiversity, but that it’s not enough to just mention IPM to convince. They need practical measures, that finally result in a good and healthy harvest. There are such measures available and it is possible to farm with less pesticides as this paper shows. But: we need more research and, most importantly, more transfer of this research to the farmers. Science communication at it’s best.

All this needs money, but hopefully the pollination and biodiversity crisis is at a point to help us change our minds on what to spend our money. In 2020 the common agricultural practice of the EU (CAP) will be reformed. I really hope that good old Europe will take the opportunity for a more sustainable agriculture. And, by this, to be an example for other regions of the world in which agriculture is far more important for economy. And from which we almost don’t know anything about their native bees and the impact agriculture has on them.

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