Friday, 3 October 2014

Our environment is being corrupted because the system is corrupt

Following my last post I began to wonder about the economic viability of spring sowing of cereal crops in order to allow farmland birds and wildlife to feed and overwinter in the stubble. The RSPB recommend it (1), but more importantly do the NFU regard this approach as viable? Then I came across this statement on their website:

"Farmers also have been reluctant to plant spring crops without neonicotinoids" (2

Ah, neonicotinoids. Is there a better example of the corruption of government and those that lobby it, in recent times? 

Neonicotinoids, like the chemically similar nicotine, have been very popular. They are registered in more than 120 countries and with a turnover of €1.5 billion, they represented 24% of the global market for insecticides in 2008. Unfortunately there is good evidence that neonicotinoids are damaging to insectivorous bird life (3). In addition, a recently published analysis of over 800 published papers concluded that:

"The present scale of use, combined with the properties of these compounds, has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, non-target vegetation and estuarine and coastal marine systems, which means that many organisms inhabiting these habitats are being repeatedly and chronically exposed to effective concentrations of these insecticides" (4

Last summer, with a Europe wide ban for neonicotinoids appearing imminent, in a staggeringly cynical and depressing move, the UK Government and one of the major producers of this insecticide, Syngenta (supported by the NFU and the then “Environment Secretary” Owen Patterson) applied for an exemption for the ban in the UK, arguing that there was insufficient proof of harm(5).

Fortunately, the European Union, unlike the UK government, does appear to place public and environmental health above the profits of farmers and the agro-chemical industry. Neonicotinoids were banned in Europe for 2 years, with the exception of use in greenhouses and outdoor use after the flowering season (6). 

But what does this have to do with Cuddesdon? DEFRA's own published figures on UK farmland bird populations show a 50% loss in the last 40 years (7): 

What will these numbers be like in another 40 years if nothing changes? With continued intensification of agriculture and insecticide use will there be any bird or insect life left in our “countryside”? And do the farmers and the government really believe that this will not affect public health or the cost and means of food production? 

Our environment is being corrupted and poisoned because those in power choose to prioritise the interests of agricultural chemical companies and the NFU over independent scientific advice. The system is completely corrupt. For this is not a problem restricted to birds on farmland. Those in positions of power are deliberately allowing the destruction of the very ecosystems in which we all live. We all need insects, in our fields, in our rivers and in our skies. Birds are just an obvious marker of insect populations. And farmland bird populations are plummeting. 

To date it appears that neonicotinoids have had a devastating effect on insectivorous wildlife across Europe and those in power have seen our ecosystems poisoned and biodiversity reduced to the brink of collapse on their watch. Will they only act when farmers to have to spend millions of pounds buying in insects to pollinate their own crops? And is there any hope of anything changing when UK environmental policy equates to the needs of the agro-chemical industry and the farming lobby? 

Still 89 species for the year. We are all doomed. DOOMED! 


  1. Hi Tom, Your fears for the future of our farmland birds in forty years time is not restricted to just our wildlife, our own human existence is being seriously imperilled by the short term philosophy of smash and grab on OUR farmland by the exponents of profit by any means. The rapidly increasing loss of species worldwide , changing weather patterns and insects unable to cope with the horrific poisons being spread over our beloved lands should be enough to warn these profit morons that time is rapidly running out and todays profit celebration is tomorrows disaster.
    The Oxon Feather.

  2. But farmers are reporting a 25% loss of rape crops this year, due to flea beetle which the neonics were used to control. We need to give them a viable alternative if we want *autumn* sowing to be viable too, and to have economically viable farmland. If farming becomes unviable, it will be developed for housing.
    The science of the role of neonics in biodiversity declines really is very uncertain - we have no definitive field trials and no cast-iron link. It's not like it was for DDT where it was a clear-cut case. Neonics only came in the 1990s, after most of the decline of farmland wildlife had already happened in 80s, so it's not the whole story. Your figure of bird populations actually shows a flattening out of the trend over the period when neonics came in (1990s onwards), so how can it be the explanation?
    The EU has banned neonics for 2 years, but it has not put in place any surveys to see if it makes any difference, so at the end of it we will still be none the wiser. Nobody wins. We need better science here, and not let any lobby group dictate the policy (be it RSPB or NFU - both ultimately need the same thing, of economically viable farmland where insect pollinators can thrive).

  3. Well seeing as we can afford to burn Oil Seed Rape crops as a fuel, a reduction in production is not going to have an adverse effect on feeding the nation, and as has once again been proved by the bumper cereal harvest experienced by farmers this year that has seen cereal prices hit the floor. In fact the viability argument just doesn't add up because when things are short, this is reflected in higher commodity prices. Of course Neonics may only be part of the problem, but nevertheless there are serious doubts about them and it is only sensible to play safe while such doubts do remain, in fact it needs the often apparently unprincipled chemical industry to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that these chemicals are safe.
    No house building can take place unless planning permission is granted , in other words there are controls in place even though the safeguards have been dangerously relaxed recently, but at the present rate of developer profiteering there is going to be an obvious oversupply , hopefully before too much countryside is destroyed.
    The Oxon Feather.

  4. High prices don't help if a farmer has planted his rape crop and it is then destroyed by flea beetle - he has lost his capital and his future income. He can't just grow cereals every year as he has to have some rotation to factor in soil exhaustion and pest reservoirs. And he can't grow rape when prices are high because his control for flea beetle has been taken away and he can't guarantee that he'll get a crop.
    If farmland becomes economically unviable then it comes up for sale, and is then more susceptible for change of use - such as housing. If it has no viability as farmland then planners are more likely to agree it should be put to better use. The idea of an obvious over-supply of housing any time in the forseeable future is odd - prices are rising at 10% and we have a vast, chronic and well-documented under-supply of housing.
    How can you prove that a chemical is safe or unsafe in the wider countryside if it has been banned before any proper field trials have been done?

    1. Hey! come on Anonymous i'm a retired farmer and lived with the difficult problems of unpredictable crop prices for years and to pick on one example of flea beetle in oilseed rape is a bit narrow when I know and experienced the influence the supermarkets had on and still have on farm incomes is so much more of an issue. I along with most farmers took advantage of the many wildlife friendly schemes that are now a significant
      part of farm incomes and the very least the farming community needs to do is reassure the public that our food is safe for us and safe for the environment anything less is not only unfair but disrespectful. Any trials should be on closely monitored plots under strict supervision although to me there is already enough evidence to show that our concerns are well founded and the risks are far too great to be taking any chances so lets do the right thing and put life before profit.
      The Oxon Feather.

  5. Interesting comments, thank you Barry, Badger and “Anonymous” (and it is a shame that you are, your views are thought provoking and it is always nice to know to whom one is talking). I would certainly agree that we have a strong need for better science and for governments that are clear sighted and distant enough from lobbyists to act on the results of that science. The EU banning neonicotinoids for 2 years across Europe over concerns about their effect on bee populations, but then failing to set up independent trials to establish more detail about these effects appears acutely short-sighted. There is an obvious need for more data here and it is important that is it not just provided by the agro-chemical industry.

    Are neonicotinoids responsible for all the recorded population loss of farmland bird species? Almost certainly not, habitat loss must also play a part, but without good data we simply don't know. The current data appears to strongly suggest that there is widespread contamination involving effective levels of neonicotinoids into ecosystems well beyond the farm boundaries. If this is the case, then it is a major concern. A study published in Holland in 2013 (1) found that water containing allowable concentrations of neonicotinoids had 50% fewer invertebrate species compared with uncontaminated water. As neonicotinoids have a half life of about 1000 days, a 2 year ban is not going to leave us with an uncontaminated environment. The key question is what happens after 1st December 2015? Back to spraying with neonicotinoids just so that farmers can continue with rape crop production? If so, at what cost to us all?