Ministers have authorised an emergency exemption to use the neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam, which was banned in 2018 across Europe after a series of studies found it damaged bees.
A temporary lifting of the ban for this year was sanctioned because of an aphid threat facing more than 3,000 sugar beet growers – a measure branded “scandalous” by conservationists.
The move has reignited controversy over the use of poisonous chemicals in the countryside, a debacle encapsulated by the plight of the world’s fastest living creature: the peregrine falcon.
Peregrines are muscular birds with scimitar wings that streak through the air like a flying sickle. Since the days of the Magna Carta in the 13th century, they have been known as “the King’s Bird”.
They were prized by Henry III who would give them as gifts of honour, so impressed was he by their sheer power and ability to reach flight speeds of more than 200mph. When they close their wings and ‘stoop’ – which means plunging headlong downwards like a bullet – a hunting bird will knock the living daylights out of any unsuspecting pigeon.
Toxic farm chemicals
During the Second World War, peregrines were declared a public enemy because of the threat they posed to carrier pigeons carrying vital messages of national significance. A death penalty was thereby imposed.
By 1950, respite came when killing them was no longer seen in the national interest. Those that had somehow survived, hiding out on remote places like the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, however, were about to face a far more deadly threat: toxic farm chemicals.
By the 1960s, agricultural pesticides were beginning to devastate bird populations. Robins and other songbirds, after eating pesticide-laden worms, were dropping dead en masse.
Residues of organochlorine insecticides started to build up in larger birds like falcons and hawks at the top of the food chain. The peregrine population plummeted. By 1963-64, four-fifths of the UK peregrine population had been lost. Only birds in the remoter parts of the Scottish Highlands were unaffected.
Rural industrialisation and pesticide-coated seeds
However, from 1975 peregrines started bouncing back across Britain. The early excesses of chemical-soaked intensive agriculture seem to have been curbed. The worst offending chemical – DDT – was withdrawn worldwide from use.
Sadly, however, new threats are being faced by peregrines and other birds associated with farmland. Whilst the chemicals that destroyed the eggs of peregrines have been banned or restricted, rural industrialisation grinds on. Populations of once common farmland birds like the skylark, have collapsed.
For birds, bees and other wildlife, the countryside has become a hazardous place. Chemical herbicides obliterate the flowering plants that provide seeds to eat.
Chemical insecticides wipe out their insect food. Vast prairies of single crops swamp habitat. And while the main damage from pesticides comes from industrial monocultures and the associated lack of wild seeds and insects, there is another deadly threat: crop seeds coated with pesticide.
An international problem
Like many of us, I’d always imagined pesticides being something sprayed on crops and fields to keep pests at bay – I had no idea that poison-coated seeds do damage elsewhere and was horrified to discover that they remain common in the countryside today.
Seeds are planted with a coating of pesticide to give early protection, but some are inevitably spilt and may be found by seed-eating birds that spend a lot of their day foraging, such as sparrows and finches.
The problem is an international one; a 2013 report by the American Bird Conservancy found that even where manufacturers’ instructions are followed, treated seeds remain readily accessible to birds.
“Seeds are never fully covered with soil, making them easy to find by foraging birds,” it said. “Spills are commonplace with current machinery. And many species have the ability to scrape and dig for planted seed.”
In the US, red-winged blackbirds can take just ten minutes to eat enough treated rice seeds to prove fatal. No wonder then that mass deaths are sometimes recorded where flocks of affected birds simply drop out of the sky.
Leading ecologist Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex told me that “seeds coated with any type of pesticide are inevitably spilled during sowing and then eaten by birds and small mammals – it is essentially the same as putting out poisoned bait on a huge scale”.
In a report published in 2015, an international group of scientists blamed neonicotinoid use for “the catastrophic decline of insects across Europe” and the consequent decline of insect-eating birds.
They pointed to EU rules restricting pesticide use to treating known problems above a certain level and questioned whether the routine preventative use of seeds dressed with broad-spectrum pesticide in Europe was even legal.
Most pesticide residues found in food are below accepted ‘safe’ levels. But the tests used to set these levels cannot accurately take into account the long-term effects of low-level exposure, nor can they be expected to predict the effects of the changing cocktail of chemical pesticide residues we encounter in food, again possibly every day over years or decades.
Even traces of pesticides banned decades ago – DDT and dieldrin for example – still linger in fish and other seafood, liver, burgers, milk and root crops as a result of long-term accumulation of these pesticides in animal fat, soil and water. Which is why the plight of peregrines, bees and other creatures acts like a canary in a coalmine, warning us of how our own health could be threatened.
Philip Lymbery is global CEO of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. Philip’s forthcoming book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future is published on August 18. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf