Food crops and biodiversity at risk from pesticides

24th June 2014

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  • Agriculture ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management


Nona Welford

The world's most widely used and pervasive pesticides are contaminating the natural environment and posing a serious risk to global food production, according to findings published by the IUCN taskforce on systemic pesticides.

A group of 29 scientists claim to have found conclusive evidence from around 800 peer reviewed scientific reports that pesticides containing “neonics” are having a major impact on natural ecosystems that support food crops and wildlife.

The Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) report published by the taskforce indicates that the effects on wildlife may be more widespread than first thought. Bees, butterflies and other wild pollinating insects, as well as invertebrates such as earthworms, which are essential for food crop pollination and soil conditioning, are at serious risk from neonics pesticides.

Neonics are used routinely to protect crops against pests. They can be used either as seed dressings or as soil treatments and are absorbed into plant roots, leaves, and flowers. Pollen and nectar are affected, putting pollinating insects at risk and the high persistency and cumulative effects of neonics in soil and water also results in a sustained exposure to invertebrates and other organisms.

Three neonicotinoid pesticides belonging to the group, (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam), have been linked to the rapid decline of honeybees and were banned in Europe for two years from December 2013.

One of the lead authors of the WIA report, Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, likened the risks posed by neonics to the DDT pesticide, which was banned in the early 1970s; “We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates and DDT. 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.

Neonics have global market share of around 40% and sales in excess of $2.63 billion in 2011. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is using the WIA report as part of its worldwide information campaign calling for alternative pest controls and changes to policies.

Maarten Bijleveld van Lexmond, who chaired the research, said: “The findings of the WIA 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.”

The report is due to be published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research (DOI:10.1007/s11356-014-3229-5).

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