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Alternatives to Neonicotinoids

Unfortunately, the discussion surrounding neonicotinoids has still been going on around Europe. Although the evidence has already demonstrated the risk they pose to the environment, European decision-makers are yet to decide to ban their use.

The journal LaLibre has recently interviewed Noa Simon Delso, veterinary researcher at the UIC's Center for Apicultural Research (CARI) in Belgium and BeeLife's Scientific Advisor. The interview focuses on neonicotinoid alternatives, few days after the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides published an article pointing to alternatives to these neurotoxic products. In general, it presents some key points which decision-makers need to take into account.

First, neonicotinoids' effectiveness is due to their high toxicity. However, this entails more risks than advantages, contaminating soil, water and other plants, rendering them toxic for a wide range of living beings. Because their method of application does not require spraying, farmers and other stakeholders considered them as environmentally friendly after their release in the 90s, but we have the certainty that this is far from accurate.

Second, their use is too often indiscriminate. Without much assessment of the situation, neonicotinoids have become the go-to even when there is no call for their use. Their use through seed coating is already a statement of irreflexive use. Whether there are plagues present or not, the plant is toxic and may continue to be so throughout its lifespan, thus contaminating the environment for an extended period.

Third, there are alternatives! Other methods as crop rotations, use of resistant varieties and insurance funds introduce a brighter future than the one coming from neonicotinoids. In northern Italy, insurance funds have been placed and are considered a success, even reducing costs for farmers.

Don't miss the complete interview translated from French:

See the original publication from LaLibre "Les Pesticides Neonicotinoïdes sont super toxiques"


Noa Simon, PhD and veterinarian at the UIC's Center for Apicultural Research (CARI), is part of the team of international researchers who reviewed the scientific literature on neonicotinoid insecticides. In a report recently published in the "Environmental Science and Pollution Research" Journal, they find that these products are toxic to bees and all biodiversity. "By being used irrationally, rather as a flamethrower instead of a drug to treat plant pests, they have become more and more ineffective and useless", she tells us.

What benefits did neonicotinoids have?

When they were introduced to the market in the early 90s, it was a revolution. Farmers found these products very effective, and for good reason: these neurotoxics are super toxic! It takes very little, of the nanogram order, to poison a bee. From the agronomic point of view, they had a lot of advantages: for a long time, it kills everything. They are notably systemic substances, which means that, regardless of how they are applied to the plants (by seed treatment, by roots, by spraying, by direct injection into the trunks, etc.), they are absorbed and are found everywhere in the plant, fruits, flowers, etc. They protect the whole plant from the inside. This paved the way for a new market, that of seed treatment, through their coating (with neonicotinoids). They were considered environmentally friendly because they no longer required a spray. The problem is that the neonicotinoids are extremely powerful, and we find residues everywhere in the soil, air, water, and plants everywhere on the planet because they are very persistent in the environment and soluble in water.

What's more, we used them where we did not necessarily need them ...

As soon as we treat the seeds, we do not care whether the pests are present in the soil or not. We sow, and the plant will grow, whether there are pests or not, the plant is poisoned for all insects. Neonicotinoids have therefore contaminated the environment unnecessarily.

What alternatives did you identify?

If treated seeds are used only where it is needed, that is, where pests cannot be controlled in other ways, such as crop rotation or resistant varieties, that would already be a good start, only a few percentages of surfaces would be treated, as is the case for maize in northern Italy. In the latter case, farmers preferred a simple all-risk insurance, much cheaper than these insecticides. Such an experience has been working well for years in Italy, the insurance fund costs ten times less to the farmer (€ 3.5 / ha) and is largely profitable. It has been in these areas of maize where there were large bee colonies losses, and other problems related to bees. Of course, farmers are engaged in an integrated pest management process, but they achieve a gain because of the quality of their agricultural production is better. The aim is to avoid pest problems: to choose resistant varieties, to organize crops rotation, to monitor the presence of pests and to act only if the level of infestation exceeds a certain threshold economically at risk. In this case, they start by favouring the control mechanically, by traps. If that's not enough, they go on to natural predators, then to biological pesticides. As a last resort, they use nerve chemical pesticides. What is very interesting in this case is that only 4% of the surfaces are attacked by pests, exactly what the mutual insurance fund covers. Farmers are doubly satisfied because they save on pesticides and sell their crop better. As for the environment and biodiversity, the problems of widespread contamination and catastrophic impacts are solved.

Could we ever see that neonicotinoids are also toxic to humans?

Yes, it's already done. Even if there are few studies, it should alert us very seriously. Autism spectrum disorders, neuro-developmental disorders, foetuses without a brain, heart malformations, endocrine disruption, thyroid, liver, testicles, the list is getting longer every day. In Japan, where exposure can be huge, people are hospitalised, with various abdominal pains, memory loss and tremors. Doctors forbid them to consume tea, fruits and processed vegetables. Should we follow this example?

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