bees, neonicotinocides + weeds in the spinach

While on my knees harvesting a particularly weed-ridden crop of spinach this morning, it occurred to me that a relatively small quantity of noxious chemical last autumn would have made the job a lot easier. I am not an organic dogmatist or a Luddite; good chemistry combined with sound ecological understanding and scientific humility could help us grow safe food with even less environmental impact than organic. The problem is that we live in a complex world and cannot confidently predict the results of the impatient application of our discoveries. Any new agrochemical brings a degree of risk and regulation is needed to make sure the benefits outweigh it, however much profit stands to be made.

Are the regulations adequate? If I believed they were, maybe I wouldn’t be weeding my spinach. New pesticides are proclaimed to be safe by Defra, with history-defying complacency. Of the chemicals I poured into the sprayer as a young man on a conventional (non organic) farm in the 80s (all deemed to be safe at the time), the huge majority have since been banned due to subsequent discovery of environmental or health risks.

Debate has been raging for years about the cause of colony collapse in bees and the consequent rapid and potentially disastrous decline in bee numbers. Many have blamed neonicotinocides, a new family of neurotoxic insecticides. Manufacturers and Defra have denied any link, largely on the basis that, in lab studies, likely exposure levels are non fatal and "trivial" in their effects. Research emerging from Stirling University and Avignon in France now suggests that this approach is too simplistic. Exposure to realistic doses resulted in a two fold increase in bees’ failure to return to hives and an 85% reduction in queen production. There are also suggestions of increased susceptibility to parasites and disease; quite enough to explain colony collapse. Despite bans in France, Germany and Italy, Defra keeps peddling the same line about evidence-based decisions, farmers keep spraying and bee colonies keep collapsing, which is why I will keep farming organically, despite those weeds in my spinach. Given another 25 years I reckon I will have controlled them organically anyway.

Guy Watson