Bumblebee on oilseed rape. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Conflicting news about neonicotinoids this week. "Neonicotinoids: new warning on pesticide harm to bees" according to the Guardian, while Farmers Weekly reassures us "No sign of damage to honeybees from neonics, review shows."
The twist, of course, is that the two articles are reporting on the same thing: a summary of the research on neonics, commissioned by the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor and produced by a team of scientists led by Professor Charles Godfray.
This is an update of a report Prof Godfray’s team produced last year. A lot has happened in the intervening time and the review covers a lot of ground – levels of neonics measured in the environment, lab studies on pollinators, experiments conducted in the field. The authors also comment on the lack of a clear picture on how effective neonics actually are ("we believe few would doubt that in some circumstances they are highly effective and in other circumstances they do not justify the costs of their purchase"), while stressing that they have not specifically reviewed the evidence on this point.
So what does the review say? The scientists didn’t set out to draw a final conclusion or to make policy recommendations. This is a statement of the evidence, pure and simple. It’s very easy to selectively pull out quotes that support a particular position, but that would be missing the point.
To me, this is one of the key points made in the paper: "major gaps in our understanding remain, and different policy conclusions can be drawn depending on the weight one accords to important (but not definitive) science findings and the weightings given to the economic and other interests of different stakeholders."
The RSPB, as a conservation organisation, places a high weighting on the evidence of risk to biodiversity. There is very strong evidence that pollinators and other wildlife are being exposed to neonicotinoids at potentially harmful levels. Some particularly worrying research recently showed that even flowers around the edges of arable fields can be contaminated - a concern for any farmer doing his or her best to help pollinators. We are therefore calling for a complete halt on all uses of neonics and a clear plan for filling in the remaining gaps in our knowledge. Those placing a greater emphasis on short term economic interests advocate the continued use of neonics. Given the stakes – the future of our wildlife, ecosystems and ultimately our ability to produce food – I have to say I think the RSPB’s approach is the right one.
However, my advice to anyone with an interest in the subject is not to rely on anyone else’s interpretation, but to read Prof Godfray’s paper for yourself. It is available (for free) here.
Over a year we have a very wide range of visitors to Hope Farm as I previously blogged about. The vast majority of visitors come from England as you might expect for a farm on the outskirts of Cambridge.
Occasionally however we receive visitors from much further afield, and this morning we were very glad to host a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of Land Use. We had a very useful discussion in the farmhouse kitchen sharing our experiences, explaining why RSPB works on farmland and why we bought Hope Farm in 2000 and the success’s we have achieved here.
Despite having given the statistics many times I still have to pinch myself when I tell visitors the order of magnitude we have achieved here: only 2 yellowhammers being found in December 2000 compared to nearly 300 in December 2014, and a total of 250 birds of 22 species in December 2000 compared to 1600 birds of 44 species in December 2014. Our Chinese visitors seemed impressed, and so am I' especially as we did see some yellowhammers on our walk round the farm.
We talked about the importance of still caring for wildlife in the rush towards better living standards for us all. For me it is perfectly understandable why everyone in the world should aspire to a better life, but we do have to appreciate that sometimes the natural environment can suffer as a result and that some of those species that we most cherish become much less common as a result. Taking care to protect wildlife while our lives improve is critical to our future.
I find it remarkable that a group from the Ministry of Land Use in China has heard of Hope Farm, and quite inspiring that on their 2-day visit to the UK that they specifically asked to visit here. I think they were quite impressed with what they saw and heard and hopefully the visit here will inspire them to keep protection of the natural environment at the forefront of their minds as they guide China’s development.
Do you have a brilliant idea for the future direction of your farm business or even a farming sector that you would like to discuss with a panel of experts?
At the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference, the RSPB are asking farmers to showcase their innovative business opportunities that benefit people, wildlife and the wider environment.
You may want to capitalise on the unique wildlife, landscape or environmental management of your farm. Perhaps you have a vision that will help your business become more sustainable. Whether you’re looking to develop something new or improve on something you’ve already got, we’d love to hear from you.
The session will provide an opportunity to get expert input and help others in the audience realise their own potential. Each farmer selected to present their idea will receive resources designed to support wildlife on their farm with free follow-up advice offered to the farmers taking part.
To find out more, please contact Kathryn Smith at email@example.com or 01767 693147 for a concise application form.
Deadline for applications is Friday 20th November 2015.