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Opinion: Italy does little to clear sprays debate

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If bee-friendly countries mulling pesticide bans need advice, they should not rely only on Italy for advice.

The country may appear to have laid down the costs and benefits of a curb on the apparent bane of beekeepers' – neonicotinoids – pretty clearly.

A ban has cost corn farmers 5% of yields, but has reduced hive wipeouts nearly to zero, according to a US report.

But, as so often in Italy, nothing is quite as simple as it first appears.

Yield loss

First, farmers' claims of lost production appear exaggerated.

Corn yields are expected to decline in Italy this year. But it's not obvious that has anything to do with a ban introduced earlier this year on neonicotinoids, nerve toxins based on artificial forms of nicotine which are used in seed treatment.

Across Europe, grain yields have fallen in 2009 because of the reluctance of farmers to plough money into fertilizers and sprays at a time of sagging crop prices.

Italy's corn crop has, on top, faced the setback of hot and dry weather, as highlighted by the International Grains Council last month.

It is difficult to blame the neonicotinoid ban for a 5% drop in yields when, according to Brussels group Coceral, that's only marginally worse than the productivity falls in corn crops in the rest of the European Union.

Questionable claim

Still, that doesn't mean that the bee protection lobby have got it all right either.

It's easy to imagine that Italy's farm minister Luca Zaia, a beekeeper himself, might listen to their arguments with particular interest.

But many of the apiarists' arguments, as reported by Washington officials, are questionable.

One allegation, that Italy is responsible for one-third of European Union insecticide use, tallies little with chemical industry data. Nor does it seem at all likely when Italy is responsible for less than 7% of Europe's grain production, and less than 4% of oilseeds output, although it does punch above its weight in many fruits.

Historical perspective

Even an apparent sharp drop in number of hive wipeouts should be treated with caution, given that it is not certain that neonicotinoids caused them in the first place.

Unexplained and rapid falls in bee populations have been reported since the 1890s in Asia, Canada, Europe and South America.

In America some 40 years ago, bee numbers collapsed dramatically, for unknown reasons, only to recover as quickly.

Risky approach

It may well turn out that neonicotinoids are quite the villains. But country's thinking of bans should look to independent reserch for the answer rather than to Italy's circumstance and allegation.

It would be wonderful to be able to ban insecticides just on the off chance. But if food supplies are to pose a problem, and with corn in particular squeezed because of its use in biofuels, it is a risky approach.


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