On April 19, I woke up early, and braved the busy highways of the GTA to get to a very important conference. The International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, a group comprising 53 scientists from around the world, all working to study the environmental and health impacts of systemic pesticides, were presenting their research at York University.
Having been involved with the Ontario Nature Youth Council’s pollinator campaign, I was keen to learn about the issues of pesticide induced pollinator decline from this conference. Here are three things I learned at the symposium that I’d like to share.
1) Since it is tradition to provide the bad news first, that is what I’ll do. The task force has concluded that the widespread and prophylactic use of systemic pesticides (specifically, neonicotinoids and fipronil) is having a range of negative consequences for species. Most widely known is the decline of pollinators, which are exposed to pesticides when pollinating agricultural crops. Pollinators are typically exposed to sub lethal doses over a long period of time which ultimately leads to the loss of immune and nervous system function, increasing their mortality rate. Furthermore, they find that insecticides may interact synergistically with other commonly used agrochemicals, making them even more toxic for any exposed organisms. Pollinators are not the only species affected. Large scale declines in many arthropods and birds have been linked to the use of neonicotinoids.
Photo credit: Barn swallows/Lisa Richardson
2) Now onto the good news, which may surprise you. The task force found that after reviewing scientific literature on crop yields, there was little to suggest that the prophylactic use of pesticides has a significant effect on crop yield. The reason for this is simple. Dr. Lorenzo Furlan, from Italy, uses this analogy: you don’t take antibiotics when you are not sick just to make sure you don’t get infected; when you get sick, you take antibiotics to get rid of the infection. The same is true of pests. Some areas may experience severe infestations, while others remain unscathed. According to Dr. Furlan, on only about 4% of the land used in Italy’s Integrated Pest Management Program of 53,000 hectares, were pesticides useful in increasing yield, and overall, there were no significant changes in yield compared to land outside the program that was treated with pesticides.
3) Last, but not least, my favourite take home message. When I asked Dr. Laurence Packer, a presenter at the symposium, what kinds of plants he’d recommend planting for pollinators, he gave me this answer: “Raspberries.” Raspberries provide nectar and a place to overwinter for bees, and they produce tasty berries for people. It’s a win-win situation. So get out there this spring and plant some raspberries for the bees.
By Robert Ormston,
Ontario Nature Youth Council member