Bumblebee on wheat

Why bee-harming pesticides must be banned on wheat too

Farmers can grow wheat without bee-harming pesticides. Friends of the Earth's report 'Farming wheat without neonicotinoids' reveals how.
18 Jul 2017     |       8 minute read

Three bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides were banned in the UK in 2013. Or were they?

The truth is these pesticides are still legally used on British farms, including on our wheat. What's more, we now know that a lot of the pesticide ends up in soil and water threatening farmland wildlife. It's not just bees that are at risk.

We urgently need a comprehensive ban to apply to all crops and help for farmers to find alternatives. The good news is that some farmers are already ahead of the game. Friends of the Earth's new report Farming wheat without neonicotinoids reveals how farmers are already adopting innovative ways of growing wheat without bee-harming pesticides.

How can neonics still be used if they were banned?

In 2013, the European Union restricted the use of 3 neonicotinoid insecticides following a scientific review that concluded they pose a high risk to honey bees

The restrictions only applied to certain crops attractive to bees, like oilseed rape, so neonics can still be used on our farms. In fact one of these pesticides, clothianidin, was used on over 700,000 ha of wheat in the UK in 2014 – that’s more than the entire area of oilseed rape for that year.

Help ban neonicotinoids on all crops

Photo of combine harvester in crop field
Credit: istock

Wheat isn't pollinated by bees, so why does it matter if they're treated with neonics?

It's true that wheat is not pollinated by bees so they won’t be directly exposed to neonics from the crop. But we now know that neonics stay around in the soil for a long time and move around easily in soil and water. 

This means that they can find their way into the pollen or nectar of wildflowers next to wheat crops, or even into crops that are grown after wheat or next to wheat. 

Farmers who have been told by pesticide companies that that seeds treated with neonics are a very targetted way of applying a pesticide to a crop have been misled.

Friends of the Earth thinks that to be sure we are protecting bees and other pollinators, the restrictions should be applied to all crops.

The science bit…. 

  • Far from being targeted treatments, studies on neonic seed treatments have estimated that up to 95% of the chemical does not get taken up by the crop but enters the soil and water.

  • Research in the UK found neonicotinoids in wildflower pollen collected in oilseed rape and winter wheat field margins.   

  • A new report from European Scientists (EFSA) in October 2016 concluded that use of neonics on wheat is a high risk to bees (or that a risk can’t be excluded) because the seed treatment can be taken up by a  bee pollinated crop planted subsequently (because the neonic has stayed in the soil) or drift as dust and end up on adjacent crops or wildflowers attractive to bees.

It’s not just bees at risk

It’s bad enough that our bees are still at risk from these pesticides. But there is also worrying evidence that neonicotinoids pose significant wider risks to wildlife – including earthworms, birds and butterflies, and even fish.

These risks are not addressed by the current restrictions which only consider how bees are exposed via the crops that they pollinate. That's why 18 conservation groups now want the ban to be extended.

 The science bit....

  • Earthworms can be exposed to neonics in the soil and there is evidence that neonicotinoids have impacts on earthworm mortality, reproduction and behaviour.

  • A study in Canada found neonicotinoids in most of the wetlands sampled in the intensively farmed Prairie Pothole Region. 

  • There is evidence that neonicotinoids have adverse impacts on aquatic invertebrates including freshwater shrimp leading to concerns about indirect impacts on fish such as salmon and trout which rely on shrimp for food.  

  • There is evidence that neonicotinoids can harm birds such as house sparrows and grey partridge.  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). 

Ground Beetle
Credit: Matt Cole

Neonics could be counter-productive for farmers

The impacts of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on wildlife on and around farmland is of grave concern given that thriving biodiversity is crucial for our future food production. Farmers depend upon earthworms to improve soil structure and health, on bees for pollination, and on a range of other insects, such as beetles, for natural pest control. 

 The science bit….

  • The use of neonicotinoid seed treatments could be harming the very species that could help control arable pests. A US study found that the ground beetles that eat slugs were being harmed or killed by getting a dose of neonics in the slugs.

  • Another US study found that neonicotinoid seed coatings reduce populations of natural enemies by between 10 and 20 percent.

The good news  farming without neonics

Friends of the Earth’s report Farming Wheat Without Neonicotinoids found that using neonics on wheat is not essential to protect the crop, and farmers won't need to turn to harmful pesticide sprays if they stop using neonic treated seeds. 

There are effective non-chemical ways to control the pests that neonics are currently used for. As well as drawing on a wealth of research the report features some innovative farmers who are already farming wheat without neonics. 

Meet the farmers

Read our report for full case studies about these farmers:

  • John Cherry  No till, minimal pesticides & natural enemies

John uses a ‘no till' approach on his Hertfordshire farm. This minimises disturbance to the soil  He did not use a neonicotinoid seed treatment or spray his wheat crop last autumn. He believes that the natural enemies (including spiders and beetles) that are flourishing in his fields keep aphids and other pests under control.

  • David Walston  Eliminating unnecessary pesticides

David is working to cut down insecticide sprays to a minimum on his farm in Cambridgeshire. He has never used a neonicotinoid seed treatment on the wheat crop. David believes that encouraging a healthy ecosystem has to be better for pest control as well as for biodiversity.

  • Peter Lundgren  Economic case for avoiding neonic seed treatment

Peter from Lincolnshire has saved money since stopping using wheat seeds treated with neonicotinoids. He strongly believes in encouraging natural enemies to control crop pests.

  • John Pawsey  A balanced ecosystem to avoid insect problems

John is used to farming without using any neonics or other insecticides. Since converting to organic production, John has not experienced any significant problems with insect pests in his wheat crop.  John manages his whole farm with nature in mind.

Could 2017 bring innovation in sustainable farming?

In 2017 a decision will be made by the EU about whether to extend the existing restrictions, and would apply to the UK. This could mean that neonicotinoid seed treatment for wheat will be banned. 

Our report found there is much that farmers can do now to switch from using neonics and cut down on pesticide use, and many of these methods bring other benefits like better soil health. But if we expect all farmers to accept, and prepare for, a potential ban by turning their backs on neonics we should also expect the government to support them. 

Friends of the Earth wants the UK government to:

  • commit to a permanent ban on the restricted neonicotinoids and extend it all crops – whatever our future relationship is with the EU

  • boost research into non-chemical ways to control pests, and advice to farmers

  • ensure farmers are supported to help nature in the UK’s post-Brexit farming policy.

Help ban neonicotinoids on all crops