Chemical industry claims that banning bee-killing insecticides will make matters worse are untrue

12 March 2013

This briefing note summarises the comparative benefits of banning neonicotinoids and returning to targeted spraying of insecticides, and provides evidence that claims made by the chemical industry that impacts on honey bees and other pollinator insects would be worse if neonicotinoids were banned are without foundation.

  • The use of neonicotinoid seed dressings is now ubiquitous on the UK agricultural crop which is most attractive to honey bees and many other pollinators, oil seed rape.  In evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee the National Farmers’ Union stated that ‘more or less all’ oil seed rape in the UK is now treated with neonicotinoid seed dressings, meaning that almost all oil seed rape will contain toxic nicotine-based insecticide throughout the growing season, including the whole of the flowering season, in all parts of the plant, including pollen.
  • Before seed-based, systemic insecticides were available, farmers had to take a decision to spray crops like oil seed rape when insect pests reached a level which was going to cause economic damage to the crop.  Insecticide was then generally sprayed only when necessary.  Insecticide sprays which are not systemic only remain active for a short period of time, and when sprays were applied in this way, there was a well-established system of farmers warning bee-keepers, so that bee-keepers could try to ensure bees were not flying when nearby oil seed rape crops were toxic to them.
  • Insecticides applied as sprays to particular crops as particular times could be targeted at particular outbreaks of insect pests; systemic insecticides, as research increasingly demonstrates, can have toxic effects on a very wide range of insects over the whole of the growing season.
  • Although it is as yet un-researched, systemic insecticides will also be active in the crop’s roots, and are likely to be having an unknown toxic effect on soil fauna.  Scientists have already found that GM BT maize can kill beneficial soil fungi through the presence of the BT toxin in its roots (as with systemic seed dressings, GM BT crops have an insecticide present in every part of the plant).
  • A review commissioned by the chemical industry (‘The value of Neonicotinoids seed treatment in the European Union’ - the Humboldt report), which suggests potential losses to European agriculture of 17 billion euros over five years if neonicotinoids are banned, is clearly misleading and unreliable. (1)  For example, it is based on the assumption that all EU countries currently allow neonicotinoids, whereas in fact they have been banned in Italy and Germany (for maize), in France (for sunflowers and oilseed rape) and Slovenia (for all crops). The report ignores alternative means of controlling insect pests, including greater use of crop rotation, agro-ecological and organic systems.  It wrongly assumes a 40% reduction in crop yields using insecticide sprays rather than systemic seed dressings, whereas research shows only a 20-25% reduction in organic systems, where no synthetic chemical sprays at all are used. (2)
  • The Humboldt report also ignores the fact that there is good evidence, as opposed to speculation, about the impact of banning neonicotinoids on crop yields. A three year ban in Italy on neonicotinoid use on maize found that following the ban from the 2009 season, the yields in 2011 were the same as in 2008 (9.8 tonnes per hectare). (2;3)  Instead, the Humboldt report talks about dramatic drops in yields.
  • However, even if the report’s estimate of 17 billion euros over 5 years as the cost of banning neonicotinoids is taken at face value, it is dwarfed by the 75 billion euros (15 billion euros per year) cost to European agriculture should we lose the services of honey bees and wild pollinators. (2)

The Soil Association’s Keep Britain Buzzing campaign wants to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and is working to promote bee-friendly organic farming so everyone can make a difference by simply changing their shopping habits.


  1. ‘The value of Neonicotinoid seed treatment in the European Union: A socio-economic, technological and environmental review’; Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture (HFFA), 2013); financed by Bayer CropScience and Syngenta
  2. PAN-Europe opinion on the Humboldt report on “The value of Neonicotinoids seed treatment in the European Union”; Pesticide Action Network Europe; Brussels, 5 March 2013
  3. APENET (2011a): UNAAPI’s synthesis and highlighting of the Report on activities and results of the APENET Project “Effects of coated maize seed on honey bees” Year 2011; National Union of Italian Beekeeper Associations UNAAPI. Original APENET report in Italian available via:

Further information or comment:
Emma Hockridge, Head of Policy, Farming and Peter Melchett, Soil Association Policy Director are available for interview or further information. To arrange this, please call 0117 914 2448 or 07827 925380.

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