Another silent spring?

Here’s our choice. We wait and see whether a class of powerful pesticides, made by Bayer and Syngenta, is indeed pushing entire ecosystems to oblivion, or we suspend their use while proper trials are conducted. The natural world versus two chemical companies: how hard can this be?

Papers published over the past few weeks suggest that neonicotinoids, pesticides implicated in killing or disabling bees, have similar effects on much of life on earth. On land and in water, these neurotoxins appear to be degrading entire foodchains. Licensed before sufficient tests were conducted, they are now the world’s most widely used pesticides. We are just beginning to understand what we’ve walked into.

A paper in Nature last week showed a strong correlation between neonicotinoid concentrations and the decline of birds such as swallows, skylarks, yellowhammers, wagtails, starlings and whitethroats(1). It couldn’t demonstrate causation, but it was elegantly designed to exclude competing factors. The precipitous loss of insects caused by this pesticide is the simplest and most obvious explanation, as all these birds depend on insects to feed their young. Where the chemical was heavily used, bird populations fell by 3.5% a year; where it was not, they held up. At this rate, it doesn’t take long to engineer a world without song.

Another paper reports that residues of neonicotinoids were found in all the soil samples the researchers took(2): these chemicals are highly persistant. Sold to farmers as precise and targeted, they are some of the least discriminate pesticides ever produced. When they are used to treat seeds, just 5% is absorbed by the plant: the rest soaks into the soil, with potentially lethal impacts on the animals that maintain its structure and fertility(3).

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