As president of UNAAPI, the Italian Beekeepers Association, Francesco Panella is one of the most impassionate opposers of neonicotinoids and other synthetic pesticides, whether they are used as seed coating or sprayed on groves, as he blames them for weakening the bees’ immune system. He would very much like to see an urgent turnaround from intensive agriculture towards what he calls a “durable” system.
How do you comment Italy’s suspension of neonicotinoid seed coating?
This is the direct result of scientific monitoring from us beekeepers and some Italian regional administrations which were sensitive to our problem. We had been reporting on what we had seen since 2000, but until recently we were always told that there was no scientific evidence. Unfortunately, we beekeepers don’t have a say in the authorization process of agrochemical products.
What were the most significant results of the honeybee collapse monitoring by the Piedmont authorities?
The residues of neonicotinoid molecules were found in all of the 24 official tests on dead bees, which were carried out by vets employed by the Piedmont authorities. In the Lombardy and Veneto regions, the residues were found in about 50% of the analysed samples. But we don’t know how these substances degrade within the bees; what we do know is that a minuscule quantity can be devastating for them.
From your point of view, what needs to follow now?
To my mind, international research on pesticides has yet to consider fully that bee mortality has never be so high all over the world at the same time. It is a huge phenomenon, with different factors at play, but strangely research tends to concentrate mainly on the causes of bee diseases, and does not duly consider the environmental factors, such as bee hairs trapping pesticides hanging in the air. As a farmer, this really scares me. For me, all this talking about colony collapse “syndrome” is a huge ideological operation. As the causes are not known, it cannot possibly be a “syndrome”.
Are you saying that there is little relation between the massive loss of bees and the factors we already know?
Bees are the best environment agency in the world. In fact, there is no other being with such a constant relationship with the environment over a very wide area. If an elderly breaks a leg and then dies of pneumonia, he obviously died because he broke a leg in the first place.
Is it true that you beekeepers can manage to live with neonicotinoids on groves and vineyards, provided that they are used wisely?
These molecules should be used with extreme caution. If you spray them during the day, it is true that sunlight makes them degrade much faster. But if you put them into the soil, they stay much longer. I fear they might have unforeseen effects on nature. To me, they contravene all rules of sustainable agriculture: they don’t target a specific kind of insect; they are very long-lasting; and they are used whether the parasite is there or not, as in the case of maize. If the maize single-crop system was replaced by rotation, there would be no need for chemical treatments. We beekeepers are perhaps the only people who are permanently in contact with insects, and we see that the single-crop system is destroying all sorts of them. Over the last 30 years the world lost about 30% of fertile land: could this be the reason why bees die?
Are you implying that only organic agriculture may be compatible with bees?
Eliminating bees means eliminating life. We need an agriculture that is part of natural cycles, of the vital process, one that does not leave infertility behind. I am not qualified to say whether an appropriate use of pesticides is possible; I just know that, for instance, between 40 and 80 grams per hectare of neonicotinoid active substance are used in seed coating, some of which may stay on in the soil until the next sowing. We are talking about a very small quantity of neonicotinoids, but a bee can die with only 0,5 parts per billion. So we need to have an intelligence looking at the future, not just at the next 6 months’ turnover. There are no goodies or baddies here. I simply believe that if governments told the big agrochemical business to build a compatible system, they would get it in no time.
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