SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 182 October 2014

The birds, the bees and the multinationals

It is over 50 years since Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), kick-started today’s environmental movement. She warned: "The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials". Carson described chemicals as "changing the very nature of the world, the very nature of life". Some pollutants, such as acid rain, were by-products of industrialisation. Others were agricultural poisons deliberately applied in the form of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Silent Spring aroused huge public concern, and its main target, the insecticide DDT, was banned for agricultural use within a few years of publication.

Today, a handful of multinational corporations control most of the world’s agrochemicals. Their tentacles spread into every continent and every level of agriculture, dictating the ways our food is produced and impacting on the wider environment. Two issues dominate. One is genetically modified crops and the other is the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Produced by two companies – Bayer, a German-based multinational pharmaceutical and pesticide company, and Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness – ‘neonics’ have become the world’s most widely used agricultural pesticides since they were introduced 20 years ago.

They are nerve agents, with the effects of exposure ranging from instant and lethal to chronic and cumulative. Rather than being applied selectively to target harmful insects, they are used to coat seeds, spreading poison throughout the plant, potentially impacting all species that consume any part of it. While targets, such as aphids, are killed by feeding on the leaves and stems, bees absorb smaller amounts from the pollen. Birds eat insects and the poison accumulates in their bodies. Run-off contaminates streams, rivers and the sea, also affecting aquatic wildlife, while contamination of the soil builds up year on year. The whole ecosystem is weakened.

Concern over their effects on bees has led to the current two-year moratorium on their use across the European Union, but their impact is far wider. Much of the seed maize, soy and oilseed rape grown in the US is pre-treated with neonics. Water-soluble, most of the chemical washes into the soil and water system and is now showing up in rivers in areas where these crops are grown. Campaign group, Pesticide Action Network, reports that a US Geological Survey found neonics contaminating 75% of streams surveyed in the Midwest: "Neonic traces in Iowa streams reached levels well above those considered toxic for aquatic organisms".

In a review of 800 scientific studies, Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin, of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, said: "We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is… imperilling the pollinators and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem". (Worldwide Integrated Assessment, 2014, Triodos Foundation, Netherlands)

The ‘functioning ecosystem’ in this case is the world in which we live, where three quarters of our main food crops are pollinated by insects, including most of our most nutritious fruits and vegetables. To put it bluntly, the world’s future food supply is at risk if pollinators are killed off by the indiscriminate use of poisonous chemicals.

Research published this year in the science journal, Nature, showed a clear and strong correlation between neonicotinoids and the decline of many bird species, including swallows, skylarks, yellowhammers and wagtails – all birds that eat insects. Where the neonics were present in high concentrations, bird populations fell by 3.5% a year, as compared with areas where they were not used. British environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, commented: "At this rate it doesn’t take long to engineer a world without song". (Guardian, 15 July)

Honeybees are vital to the pollination of commercial crops across the world. Beekeepers in Europe and North America have reported entire colonies of bees dying or simply vanishing, with numbers halving in the last 25 years. Neonicotinoids are a prime suspect. Research shows that bees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides have smaller colonies, fail to return to their hives, have trouble navigating and are less able to fight off parasites and other infections.

Seventy percent of dead bees tested by Health Canada contained neonicotinoids, leading to two large honey producers filing a class action lawsuit against Bayer and Syngenta on behalf of all Canadian beekeepers. They are claiming $400 million in damages for the loss of their bee colonies. "The goal is to stop the use of the neonicotinoids to stop the harm to the bees and the beekeepers". (CBC News, 3 September)

Meanwhile, British research also implicates neonics in a decline in wild bees. In a paper published this year in Science magazine, researchers at Stirling and Lancaster universities have shown that wild bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoids suffer a reduced reproduction rate, putting their populations at risk.

Can neonics affect human health? The answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’. They have a small but cumulative, and irreversible, effect on any living thing that absorbs them. And, while their use in developed economies can be regulated, in other parts of the world there is extreme pressure to increase crop yields, farmers may be unaware of some of the risks of these chemicals to the wider environment, and governments are even more easily pressured – or bribed – by big business interests.

Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and other agrochemical mega-corporations make huge donations to US election campaigns and to overseas ‘development’. They put pressure on anyone who speaks out against them. A wide range of methods are used, with one end in mind: the maintenance of their profits. And these are worth defending: Bayer had profits of €2.46 billion in 2012, while Syngenta banked $1.46 billion last year. Their lobbyists have the ear of politicians across the world, while research that backs the industry gets research grants.

The current EU moratorium arose from a European Food Safety Authority study which found that the agrochemical industry had unduly influenced regulatory agencies’ claims of safety. It concluded: "A high acute risk to honey bees was identified". As a result, a two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids started in December 2013 – despite the best efforts of the British government. Monbiot commented that Owen Paterson, "the worst environment secretary this country has ever suffered", "threw everything against an EU proposal to suspend their use on flowering crops". Paterson reassured Syngenta that "our efforts to stop the suspension will continue and intensify". The attitude of Liz Truss, the current environment secretary, is not known. Given the well-funded lobbying activities of Bayer and Syngenta, however, she is likely to be under huge pressure to oppose any further regulation of agrochemicals.

Where socialists part company with Monbiot and much of the environmental lobby is with their over-reliance on calls for greater regulation and for a ‘global moratorium’. Obviously, we would welcome a long-term ban on such dangerous chemicals, but anything that threatens these companies’ profits is never going to be acceptable to the likes of Syngenta and Bayer.

A permanent ban in Europe would lead to their greater use in the developing world, where there is huge pressure to increase crop yields, and where regulation is always going to be weaker. A ban on one of their products will just lead them to develop new ones. Look how quickly the neonics have replaced earlier families of chemicals! Pressure is also applied to allow more use of GM crops, largely controlled by Monsanto, and its associated widespread use of herbicides which pose a huge threat to the world’s ecosystems.

When our food, health and environment are under threat on a planetary level, regulation is not enough. Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, Dow and the whole agrochemical and pharmaceutical industry should be taken into public ownership. The dominance of world agriculture by global corporations requires a global solution, and socialists around the world should campaign for the nationalisation of these companies’ activities wherever they may be.

Kate Jones

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