‘Wheat farming – neonic seeds are bad news for the birds and the bees’ – Guest Post by Sandra Bell

Farmers depend upon nature for a range of free services – from pollination to pest control – but, unbeknown to them, could the seeds they are using be harming the very creatures that they need most?

A new report from Friends of the Earth – Farming Wheat without Neonicotinoids – makes the case for neonicotinoid seed treatments to be banned on wheat, and features innovative farmers leading the way in alternative pest control, arguing for better support to encourage all farmers to go the same way.

Aren’t neonics banned already?

In 2013 the EU banned the use of neonic seed treatments on bee pollinated crops such as oilseed rape, due to a high risk to bees from their use, and evidence of harm  has been mounting ever since.  Because the ban did not apply to all crops, these pesticides are still legally used on British farms, including on wheat.

Neonics don’t just harm bees

Wheat is not pollinated by bees so they won’t be directly exposed to neonics from the crop. But we now know that, despite being marketed to farmers as a targeted form of pest control, up to 95% of the pesticide enters the environment instead of the crop.  This means that neonic residues can find their way into the pollen or nectar of wildflowers next to wheat crops, or even into flowering crops like oilseed rape that are grown after wheat, putting foraging bees at risk.

It’s now emerging that neonicotinoids pose significant wider risks to wildlife too– including earthworms, birds and butterflies, and even fish. For example there is growing evidence that neonicotinoids harm birds such as house sparrows and grey partridges.  Even though the law requires that treated seeds must be drilled into the soil, some seeds are inevitably left lying on the surface by accident, and eaten by such birds. And as neonics are highly mobile they can end up in our rivers where they are a threat to freshwater shrimp and potentially the salmon and trout that feed on them.

Neonics – bad for farmers’ friends?

The impacts of neonicotinoids, and other pesticides, on wildlife on and around farmland could even make them counterproductive for farmers.

Scientific studies have found that neonics in the soil could harm earthworms – well known as farmer’s friends – with impacts on their behaviour, reproduction and mortality.  A US study found that the ground beetles which help farmers by eating slugs were also being harmed or killed by getting a dose of neonics in the slugs they ate, with an associated decrease in crop yield.  The slugs on the other hand were unaffected by the neonics.

The good news – farming without neonics

Friends of the Earth’s new report – Farming Wheat without Neonicotinoids – found that using neonics on wheat is not essential to protect the crop.  Our research, which included practical case studies from farmers, concluded that there are effective non-chemical ways to control the pests that neonics currently attempt to target.

For example encouraging natural enemies was found to be an effective approach, including for controlling aphids, which are a significant concern in wheat because they spread the disease Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV). In fact, all of the insect pests of wheat which neonics are used to control have natural enemies.

The farmers featured in our report used a range of techniques to boost natural predator populations including providing a diverse range of habitats on the farm, cutting overall pesticide use and minimising soil disturbance by using a no-till or minimum-till approach.  Our case study farmers emphasised the need to encourage healthy and balanced ecosystems on their farms to facilitate natural pest control.

Many pest challenges for wheat farming have been made worse by the change to winter cropping so a shift to spring cropping could be worthwhile – although yields for spring sown wheat are more variable the pest problems are fewer meaning inputs can be lower.  Variety choice is the most effective method for some problems – especially Orange Wheat Blossom Midge as there are several readily available resistant varieties.

The way forward?

Less than half of the wheat grown in the UK uses neonicotinoids and it is very encouraging that farmers are finding other ways of dealing with wheat pests and cutting or even eliminating the use of other insecticides at the same time.

Friends of the Earth is campaigning, with other organisations, for a complete ban on neonicotinoids.  Farmers need to be supported to farm without neonics so the Government and farming industry need to boost research into non-chemical ways to control pests, and make sure farmers have access to good quality independent advice.  And the Government must support farmers to help nature in the UK’s post Brexit farming policy.

Sandra Bell is a campaigner in the Nature team at Friends of the Earth currently working on The Bee Cause campaign.  She previously worked on Friends of the Earth’s Food and Farming campaign, covering a range of issues including pesticides, local food, sustainable livestock farming and supermarket power.

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