In this two-part article, the authors shine a spotlight on neonicotinoid pesticides against a backdrop of widespread use of this group and concerning reports of an alarming and increasing loss of biodiversity. While honey bees have been the focus of concern, other pollinators and invertebrates, birds and even the lowly earthworm are at risk.
Part I examines neonicotinoid uses in Australia and problems ascribed to their use overseas, particularly massive losses of honey bees. Are honey bees under threat from colony collapse disorder in Australia? Are we equipped to adequately address environmental pesticide management issues?
By Marilyn Steiner and Stephen Goodwin
In spring, 2010, we noticed that ladybird beetles were conspicuously absent from our garden. Not just down in numbers, but absent. There didn’t seem to be any shortage of aphids, so where were they all? As summer progressed, we continued to look out for them. No shortage of plant-eating and fungus-eating ladybirds, but no insect and mite-eating species. In summer and again recently, we emailed colleagues in the bug management business. Had they noticed a decline in ladybirds? They reported major declines in the Sydney basin, southern Queensland and Adelaide Plains, but not in Western Australia or Victoria. Our neighbours grow organic stone fruit on one side and citrus on the other. Heavy rain washes fertiliser, and potentially pesticides, from the citrus farm into the creek we all share for irrigation. It’s well known that run-off can leach some residual pesticides from soil into creeks and rivers, but we have no idea if this is the case and even less chance of proving it. The dots are a long way from being joined, because population fluctuations in insects are the norm. Perhaps the main question to ask is, if ladybirds did in fact disappear from the Australian fauna, would anybody care enough or have sufficient funds to launch an investigation?
You may think that disappearing ladybirds is not a particularly newsworthy item, nor worth the expenditure of valuable research dollars. The fact is, research dollars in Australia for environmental issues such as IPM have almost dried up in the last 2 years, and this in itself is a major concern. The proportion of projects which, relate to integrated pest management (IPM) that are funded through Horticulture Australia Ltd (HAL), particularly those involving national vegetable levy funds, has declined from 17% in 2007 to 8.7% in 2009. The proportion of projects going directly to AUSVEG is significant and has increased substantially in the same period, going from 6.25 to 12.5%. Is the money, which is collected through grower levies, voluntary contributors and the Federal Government, being well spent? How is it possible to assess this? HAL is being less than transparent about how funding is being allocated. We asked several times for information on the dollar value of individual projects, but met with refusal. Without this information, it is not possible to see how much is being assigned to specific program areas, and where the trends lie.
In PH&G issue #118, May-June 2011, we reported on a highly successful pilot project for IPM in capsicum, which was inexplicably refused further modest funding. Concerned IPM researchers met in Adelaide in July this year, and formed the Mitcham Sustainable Horticulture Group. All present expressed deep concern about the drying up of funding for research and development, and frustration at their inability to provide real input into the decision-making process. Also being queried is the commitment of AUSVEG management towards IPM. While ostensibly the agency is supportive, in line with strong support for IPM from growers, the disenfranchising of the research community and withdrawal of R&D funding is causing deep disquiet. Two years ago AUSVEG formed strategic partnerships with Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and Dupont. This raised a red flag at the time, for obvious reasons. While donations to the cause are no doubt welcome, such arrangements are seldom altruistic, and can create potential conflicts of interest. We were also refused information on the agreements within these partnerships. It appears that only the CEO and the AUSVEG board are privy to them. At the AUSVEG Convention in April 2011, these three chemical companies all had invited speaker spots. Bayer CropScience brought in Dr Maria Teresa Almanza, Product Development Manager Insecticides, Beneficials and Pollinators for Bayer CropScience in Germany to deliver a presentation on Beneficials and Pollinators. This is an irony that will not escape many of our informed readers. The talk, which she entitled ‘Bayer CropScience and Sustainable IPM Systems’, conveniently did not actually mention pollinators, nor imidacloprid and other Bayer CropScience products, which have incurred the wrath of beekeepers and environmentalists world-wide. The audience was told that Bayer CropScience was very committed to IPM; its new pesticides Belt® (flubendiamine) and Movento® (spirotetramat) reflected this. Hold that thought, it’s certainly a commendable sentiment, and a step in the right direction.
Honey bees can pick up neonicotinoids from flowers (Image Dan Papacek)