Pesticides versus pollinators

We must stop the war on Nature

Pesticides versus pollinators

In line with the European Commission, Portugal is moving ahead with a plan to give greater protection to pollinating insects while reducing the use of pesticides in agriculture to avoid health risks to humans.

The EU executive unveiled a plan last June to reduce the use and risk of pesticides by half by 2030. This proved to be unacceptable among EU member states and the plan is being reconsidered. Environmentalists argue that reform needs to be speeded up.

The global population of pollinating insects, such as bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and ants, has been decreasing rapidly. The survival of some species is threatened while others have already become extinct. Meanwhile, the risk of pesticides causing serious illnesses has been underestimated.

The use of pesticides – herbicides, fungicides and insecticides – is one of the main causes of the decline in biodiversity, which major United Nations’ summit meetings on global warming have pledged to stop.

Some EU states still do not fully recognise the harmful consequences of plant protection products. Some have been ignoring the EU ban on exporting toxic pesticides to less wealthy countries such as Morocco, South Africa, the Philippines and Mexico.

The Pesticide Action Network (PAN), which consists of more than 600 non-governmental organisations and individuals in over 90 countries, is working hard to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically-sound and socially-just alternatives.

According to PAN, “scientific evidence indicates that pesticides contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions while also making our agricultural system more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, the reduction of systemic pesticide use has been omitted from climate change solutions. The systematic pesticide use is even presented as a climate change mitigation strategy by industrial agriculture interest.”

Among the many other things PAN has emphasised: “The use of pesticides on average in Europe did not decrease in recent years despite much debate on the sustainability of agriculture and despite the entering on the market of pesticides that can be used at low doses. Between 2011 and 2020, pesticide sales in the EU were almost stable, around 350,000 tonnes per year. The vast majority is used in the agricultural sector.”

Last September, PAN (not to be confused with the Portuguese political party with the same initials) published the findings of its analysis of large samples of fresh fruit grown in Europe. It concluded that the contamination of apples, pears and plums had almost doubled since 2011.

It came as a shocking surprise to learn that 49% of the pears, 44% of the table grapes and 34% of the apples tested were sold with contaminations linked to increased risks of cancer, birth deformities, heart disease and other serious illnesses.

Portuguese pears were among the most contaminated (68%). Half of the Portuguese apples were contaminated. Most of the pesticides in question were a health threat even at very low doses, according to the report.

This year, the worldwide value of all pesticides used is expected to reach $130 billion with almost a quarter sold in Europe, making this one if the biggest markets. Only a few corporations share this profitable trade.

The problem of dangerous pesticides for pollinators is not only within the fields of sprayed crops. Pesticides can move from where they were applied by sinking into the soil and groundwater, or rising into the air to get blown far away, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres.

Wild honey and bumble bees and other small insects feed on pollen and nectar. In their wondrous daily lives, they naturally pick up pollen on their feet and lower bodies and transfer it to other plants. By doing so, they greatly help increase yields of fruits and vegetables. But the killing of these insects comes about when they also pick up deadly pesticides. They may also become contaminated directly with spray or by ingesting contaminated pollen.

Not all crops are dependent on pollinators, but you might like to bear in mind this special one. A certain kind of midge pollinates the small, evergreen cacao trees in Africa’s Ivory Coast, Central and South America and parts of Asia. No midges, no cacao trees – no chocolate.


Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: