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Scientific Research Condemns Neonicotinoid Pesticides: What More Will It Take?

Photo © Craig Mackintosh

Last week, newly-published research (1) in the Nature journal links a type of pesticide whose use has been restricted in the EU to the decline of bird population in the Netherlands.

The study, which focussed on a particular type of neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, found that where the chemical was present in a “high concentration” — more than 20 nanograms (ng) per litre of surface water — it has led on average to a 3.5 percent annual decline of insectivorous birds (1). Considering that the EU has defined the amount of pesticides allowed in drinking water as 100 ng per litre for each compound and 500 ng per litre for overall pesticide count (2), the findings seem a little worrying in terms of human health.

Photo © Craig Mackintosh

Time to learn

The pesticide focussed on by the study is one of three whose use on flowering crops in Europe has been suspended after a previous study found their danger levels for bees “unacceptable” (3). The other two neonicotinoids in the temporary ban are clothianidin and thiamethoxam (4). The ban on all three is being questioned in the European court by chemical company Bayer, while Syngenta are focussing on just thiamethoxam but are taking similar legal action (4).

However, following the public criticism last week over Syngenta’s application to the UK government to use an “emergency” lifting of the ban (see for example 5), and Syngenta’s subsequent withdrawal of the application (see for example 6, 7), it seems that public opinion is beginning to embrace a pesticide-free Europe.

In a press release in reaction to the publication, Friends of the Earth commented,

The evidence of pesticides harming our hard-working bees, our soil and water and now also birds is overwhelming. The Government needs to learn about ‘the birds and the bees’. It must stop claiming there is no evidence of harm from pesticides and start helping farmers to produce and protect their crops without relying on toxic chemicals. (8) (FoE, 9/7/2014)

When neonicotinoids are applied as a seed dressing to crops, the bulk of the active ingredients
(80–98%) enter the soil and soil water. There, they can persist for long periods, accumulate,
be taken up by the roots of vegetation at the margins of fields and follow-on crops, or leach
into aquatic systems. Neonicotinoids are highly toxic to insects, which are exposed to the
chemicals in plants, soil and water. Hallmann et al have observed rapid declines in bird
populations in regions with high environmental neonicotinoid concentrations, and suggest
that they are the result of insect poisoning depleting the birds’ food supply. —

Don’t stop now

However, although more and more people appear to be becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides in their food, there are some key limiting beliefs held by many farmers which need to be contested.

The Nature study received quite wide press coverage in Europe, including being featured in a story on BBC News (9), one of the Britain’s main media outlets.

The BBC story devotes about a third of a page to the scientific findings and the rest on criticisms of the neonicotinoid ban. One farmer who is interviewed, described as “environmentally aware” says he “doesn’t believe the science against neonicotinoids has been proven out in the field”(9).

The farmer, George Ponsonby from Gloucestershire, is reported as complaining that the ban on neonicotinoids means that he has to use older and more dangerous pesticides in order to achieve a good crop (9).

The story describes him looking sorrowfully at a field of “totally untreated kale which has been decimated by the flea beetle”(9); a clear example that his thinking includes either a monoculture with pesticides or a monoculture without pesticides. The idea of creating a field of crops which does not ignore the pest problem, but which integrates pest management into its system in a holistic and non-harmful way, does not appear to have occurred to him. This shows the extent of the grip of intensive monoculture farming on farmers in the UK; a grip which is by no means unique in Britain.

Ponsonby seems to feel stuck in terms of what he can do. He was reported as saying,

If we knew we were decimating our bee population then we wouldn’t do it, (9)

… yet he also refutes the scientific evidence that the pesticides are doing exactly that.


“The European ban on neonicotinoids should now be extended to cover all uses” (8) say Friends of the Earth;

How many more species must be added to the endangered list before stronger action is taken? (8)

The inference from the scientific findings on what the pesticides could be doing to human consumers of the crops affected, as well as those who use the water or soil in the vicinity of treated crops, seems to show that even if we do not care at all about other species dying out, we should stop using the chemicals for the sake of our own health.

Yet until farmers are exposed to the idea that crops can be grown without pesticides as well as without enough pests to destroy their yield, they are unlikely to listen. In many ways, it will be a case not of instruction but of a gentle reminder. After all, multi-crop fields and integrated pest management have been used by many cultures for far longer than high-input, chemical-reliant monoculture farming. It could even be said to be in our collective farming unconscious (see for example 10).

All we need to do is remind farmers that they do, after all, have a choice: and it is their responsibility to every species on earth to make the right one.


  1. Hallmann, casper et al, 2013. ‘Decline in insectivorous birds are associated with high neonicotinoid concentrations’. Nature, 9/7/14: doi:10.1038/nature13531. Preview available here: — retrieved 11/7/14
  2. Jacob, 1998. WWF Briefing: Pesticides in Surface and Coastal Waters. WWF North-East Atlantic Program: Bremen. Available here: – retrieved 11/7/14
  3. Carrington, Damian (2013). “Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees, report finds”. Guardian, 16/1/2013. – retrieved 29/6/2014
  4. Nature News Blog, 28/8/2013. “EU insecticide ban triggers legal action”. – retrieved 29/6/2014
  5. Carrington, Damian (2014). “Syngenta seeks ‘emergency’ exemption to use banned insecticide on UK crops”. Guardian, 25/6/2014. – retrieved 29/6/2014
  6. Carrington, Damian, 2014. “Syngenta withdraws application to use banned pesticide linked to bee harm”. Guardian, 4/7/14. – retrieved 9/7/14
  7. Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. “Organic Europe: growing or Wilting?” Permaculture News, 10/7/14. – retrieved 11/7/14
  8. Friends of the Earth, 2014. “Press Release: NEONIC PESTICIDES CAUSING WILD BIRD DECLINE – FRIENDS OF THE EARTH REACTION”. Friends of the Earth: London
  9. Mcgrath, Matt, 2014. “Bird decline ‘smoking gun’ for pesticide’s effects”. BBC News: 9/7/14. – retrieved 11/7/14
  10. Jung, C. G. (1934–1954), The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious, Collected Works 9 (1) (2 ed.), Princeton, NJ: Bollingen (published 1981)

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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