European bug infestation may cut rapeseed harvest by 15%

The EU has a bug problem.

 After regulators in late 2013 banned pesticides called neonicotinoids, linked in some studies to the unintended deaths of bees, farmers across the continent applied older chemicals to which many pests had developed a resistance, allowing them to survive.

Now, infestations may lead to a 15% drop in this year’s European harvest of rapeseed, the region’s primary source of vegetable oil used to make food ingredients and biodiesel, according to researcher Oil World.

“When we remove a tool from the box, that puts even more pressure on the tools we’ve got left,” said farmer Martin Jenkins, who has seen flea beetles for the first time in almost a decade on his 750 acres of rapeseed outside Cambridge, England. “More pesticides are being used, and even more ridiculous is there will be massively less rapeseed.”

At issue for the EU was protecting bees that farmers rely upon to pollinate more than 80% of Europe’s crops and wild plants, valued at €22bn annually.

The ban left European farmers without effective alternatives, leading to widespread insect damage, Hamburg-based Oil World said in a recent report.

Output of rapeseed may fall to a three-year low of 20.5 million metric tons in 2015, down from a record 24 million last year, it said.

Rapeseed prices for February rose steadily last week, adding 0.5% to €362 a ton on Euronext in Paris. French corn and Spanish sunflower prices may also rise, said Copa-Cogeca, the lobbyist for the continent’s growers.

The EU restricted the main neonicotinoids, a class of chemicals similar to nicotine, while still permitting two less-toxic varieties.

Bayer AG, which markets the products as Poncho and Votivo, and Syngenta AG make the pesticide. Monsanto Co, DuPont Co and Dow Chemical Co sell seeds coated in it.

“Farmers have had to go back to older chemistry and chemistry that is increasingly less effective,” said Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the UK’s Crop Protection Association, an industry lobbyist. “Companies would like to innovate and bring newer stuff, but the neonicotinoid example is not a tempting one.”

While the EU approval for new pesticides can take years, some research is under way. The UK last month granted over €830,000 to a project led by Arch UK Biocides for a chemical based on spider venom that is harmless to bees.

Studies, such as one from the Harvard School of Public Health, have linked neonicotinoids to Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome in which bees abandon their hives in winter and die.

“The risk to bee populations and the wider environment from using this chemical that has a very big question mark over it is not a risk worth taking,” said Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, a UK charity focused on sustainable farming. “There are alternative approaches,” such as barrier crops around fields, she said.


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