Traditional farming and gardening has long taken a straightforward approach: if an unwanted plant or animal interferes, it is to be killed. We even developed a special vocabulary to help justify our actions: the animals were “vermin” and the plants were “weeds”. And, in the case of one hen-house plunderer, we came up with the elaborate ritual that is fox hunting, complete with a special ‘language of avoidance’ that anthropologists have found in cultures around the world (the fox is a “dog”, its face is a “mask”, its tail is a “brush”, the dogs are “hounds”). Unfortunately for us, some human classifications of wildlife have little to do with reality. Over millennia, nature has created a complex eco-system in which most things have their place in a slowly shifting balance. It is a delicate situation that is easily upset.
Introduce an alien species and it can become a rampant ‘pest’ that causes all sorts of problems. Just ask our plucky white claw crayfish about the arrival of their bigger, nastier signal crayfish cousins from the US – thanks to transportation provided by us humans.
If you are farmer you don’t really want this to be true. After all, these chemicals help you keep your oilseed rape crop safe from the cabbage stem flea beetle, by all accounts a pest with a deservedly fearsome reputation. So agriculture’s reaction to the latest research, which found the use of neonics was associated with “large-scale population extinctions” of nearby wild bees, was perhaps predictable.
It was an “interesting piece to an unsolved puzzle” about neonics effects on bees, said Dr Chris Hartfield, the National Farmers Union’s bee health specialist. But he added there were “still major gaps in our knowledge and a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”.
His unusual job title is possibly an indication of the importance of bees (and, cynics might suggest, the pesticides) to agriculture. They are a significant pollinator to important food crops and, if they were to disappear, farmers would have a big problem. In some parts of the world, crops have had to be pollinated by people with special sticks due to the lack of insects available to do the job.
Environmental campaigners are not the only ones starting to get a bit frustrated by farmers’ reluctance to accept the direction in which the evidence is pointing. Scientists staring at the hard facts are, too. It is a debate that raises broader questions about our use of pesticides in general. The belief that pouring poisons onto the ground in large quantities is a good idea is increasingly being called into question.
Our approach to pest control represents another significant intervention that can have unintended consequences. Evidence has been growing steadily that neonicotinoid insecticides (also known as neonics) cause a problem for bees.
The popular weedkiller, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is so commonly used that it has been detected in small levels in bread, human urine and breast milk. Experts appear divided on whether it does, or does not, pose a significant cancer risk, but if it and others were to be banned farmers would soon start running out of options.
The use of pesticides is a deliberate attempt to alter the natural state of things for our own benefit – specifically to produce large amounts of food at a price that people can afford. And that is clearly important, particularly given there are people in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries, who rely on food banks to get by. But if killing off pests is damaging our health and wildlife like bees that provide important ‘eco-system services’ then a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis may point to the need to change to a different system.
The supporters of organic farming at the Soil Association believe they have the answer. According to Emma Hockridge, the association’s head of policy for farming and land use, the results of the neonic study were “horrifying”. There was, she said, “overwhelming scientific evidence” of the harmful effect on pollinating insects.
Organic produce can be pricey at the moment, but it is unarguably grown in ways more in tune with the natural world than traditional techniques.
Some have a tendency to sneer, to view organic farming as a bit namby-pamby, a cause for champagne socialists who have moved to the countryside. But Nature with a capital N is a force to be recognised, shaped in the cauldron of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. Forcing it to conform to our way of thinking smacks a bit of the Soviet Union’s Communist command economy, eventually brought to its knees by the build-up of pressure from market forces. Eventually, the build-up of unintended consequences from our use of chemicals just might produce a similar result in modern agriculture.
Source: The Independent, 17 August 2016