Poisoned landscape

Thomas Radetzki, Claudia Marxen

There are many factors which are responsible for the collapse of bee colonies. One cause is industrialised agriculture. Pesticides, monoculture and reduced plant diversity endanger pollinators such as bees, wild bees and bumblebees. The bosses of agricultural corporations keep emphasising their responsibility to produce enough food for a growing world population. Without pesticides and genetic engineering, says Bayer director Werner Baumann, it would not be possible to produce the required quantity of food.

Bayer AG as Mother Teresa? Pesticides are presented to us as universal panaceas. The only ones to profit from this are the industrial corporations. They are driving agriculture into a vicious circle: pesticides and insecticides are killing off plant diversity and the organisms living in the soil. In order to keep the soil fertile also without intact organisms, they sell fertilisers. Poisons are sold against the pests which spread through the monocultures without natural predators: a lucrative business model.

A certain quantity of food per head is, of course, necessary. But that is not how food distribution works. In the vast majority of cases it is people who are responsible when others starve. They omit to give assistance, make access to food more difficult or use hunger as a means of exerting political pressure. Bees are weakened to such an extent through pesticides that they lose their resistance against disease. Most of the food on offer in our agricultural regions consists of plants treated with herbicides and insecticides.

A further effect can be seen in the loss of accompanying flora and the resulting shortage of food for all flower-visiting insects and farmland birds. Ninety-five percent of so-called “pesticides” accumulate in the ground and also harm the creatures living in the soil. After that the pesticides get into the groundwater, rivers, lakes and oceans. Their action continues in all these places. Although they might be diluted, many pesticides do not break down, enhance their characteristics when coming into contact with water and react with one another.

If the loss of species diversity among insects is not stopped, this will endanger not just food production but also biodiversity. Diversity is nature’s insurance against disease and failed harvests. Almost 80 percent of insects have disappeared in Germany in recent years. In the same period the use of pesticides in agriculture has risen by 40 percent. And some would argue that there is no connection? Many insects are affected, but also birds and mammals because they form a food cycle. The stock of flowering wild herbs of the fields such as poppies and corn cockles has fallen by more than 90 percent since the 1950s.

Deadly seed pellets

In Germany, sugar beet is cultivated on over 400,000 hectares according to the Federal Statistical Office. In conventional sugar beet cultivation, which makes up 99.6 percent of the area under cultivation, the seeds are routinely dressed with fungicides, fertilisers and insecticides from the group of neonicotinoids and formed into a “seed pellet” which makes sowing easier. Sugar beet and potatoes are the only field crops for which these three controversial substances continue to be used routinely in Germany.

For a tree sparrow, one or two treated seeds are sufficient for a fatal dose. Birds are particularly at risk because they feed their offspring exclusively with insects during the breeding phase. Thus according to the European Bird Consensus Council, the stock of field bird species in Europe has decreased by 57 percent since 1980. Partridges (loss of 94 percent), lapwings (74 percent) and skylark (34 percent) are particularly affected. The latest field studies from the USA show that migratory birds suffer similar confusion and disorientation as bees do as a result of ingesting the active agent of less than one dressed seed.

A further herbicide in glyphosate. It is used in agriculture to prepare the fields by killing off existing plants. This saves the farmer having to plough. Yet glyphosate is also used for dessication, that is the artificial ripening of cereals and potatoes, so that the harvest can be better planned. When this poison is applied during the day in sunny weather, it particularly severely affects the pollinators as they visit the flowers. Insects go to the moistened flowers especially in dry weather to drink water.

Beekeepers challenging neonicotinoids in court

The EU Commission restricted the approval of active agents which endanger bees (neonicotinoids and fipronil) in 2013. These are highly effective neurotoxins which represent a great danger to our environment and particularly to bees. Fipronil was found in eggs last August, which brought it to the attention of the media. Animal experiments showed it to be toxic. Hence it should generally not come into contact with foodstuffs.

Neonicotinoids are generally used as seed dressing and belong to the systemic insecticides. As the plant grows, they spread throughout the whole organism – from the root to the flowers. All animals which eat the leaves of the treated plants, drink their nectar or collect their pollen come into contact with the poison. In fact this neurotoxin is not always fatal. But it causes the insects to become confused and disorientated so that they can no longer find their way home and perish. The question fundamentally arises why seed dressing is assigned to the emergency approvals in the first place, which the agricultural industry is so keen to invoke.

In 2013, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF took action in the European Court of Justice against the restriction on the approval of some of their active pesticide agents, three neonicotinoids and fipronil. Three beekeeping associations in the alliance for the protection of bees organised by the Aurelia Foundation were allowed to join the proceedings as so-called “intervenors”. The EU Commission prohibited some of the applications of these insecticides.

In the proceedings, the corporations pointed out repeatedly that in such an event “agents with significantly greater problems than the neonicotinoids” would then be used if the latter were to be banned. Such an agent is currently making its way from Poland to Germany: the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) wrote in an announcement on 12 July 2017 that a pesticide with the active agent cyantraniliprole had been approved in Poland for seed dressing. Under European and German law dressed seeds may be imported into Germany and sown here.

The BVL fears that there is a risk to bees “due to the high bee toxicity and the systemic action” of cyantraniliprole and thus advises accompanying measures to reduce the development of dust. The authorities are thus aware of the problem of the negative effects of insecticides on bees, beekeeping and insects as a whole.

Action plan for the protection of pollinating insects

In view of the dramatically decreasing stocks, the Aurelia Foundation with its “Buzz on Honeybee!” campaign and BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) in 2017 together developed a comprehensive action plan to protect pollinating insects.

The recommended measures include, alongside the reform of the approval process for pesticides at national and international level, an improved protection status for pollinators, the preservation and restoration of diverse habitats, the ecological focus of agriculture as well as the introduction of long-term monitoring of insect stocks. Consumers can do a lot: they can mainly buy organic food since this is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and they can become politically active, debate the matter in the family and with friends, and challenge their member of parliament and politicians to take action.

About the authors: Thomas Radetzki and Claudia Marxen are on the board of the Aurelia Foundation.