Sandy’s Garden ... Do Endocrine Disruptors Kill the Busy Bees?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“Endocrine disruptor legislation ‘could cost UK potato industry over £905 million.”

Now there’s a headline to make any potato farmer wince, for it appears on the website of the Potato Council, which is a division of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board and is committed to supporting the British potato industry. And it’s not only potato farmers who might well be concerned by this headline; it’s cereal farmers, livestock farmers, commercial vegetable producers, fruit growers, nurserymen, gardeners and pretty well all of us.

To understand the reason for the headline and for its relevance to every one of us, it is necessary to know what endocrine disruptors are, who might use them and what effect they have. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) defines endocrine disruptors thus: “Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are substances that can cause adverse effects by interfering in some way with the body’s hormones or chemical messengers. These substances are therefore called hormone disruptors or endocrine disruptors, as it is the endocrine glands that secrete the hormones.” These disruptions can cause cancerous tumours, birth defects and other developmental disorders. Any system in the body controlled by hormones can be derailed by hormone disruptors and, while some endocrine disruptors have been identified and removed from the market, it is uncertain whether other compounds commonly called endocrine disruptors actually harm humans and wildlife at the doses to which wildlife and humans are exposed. And there is no doubt that these chemicals seriously harm insect pests.

But note these words carefully: “It is uncertain whether endocrine disruptors actually harm humans and wildlife.” (This, presumably, is restricted to ‘desirable’ wildlife.) Now uncertainty invites the use of what is called ‘the precautionary principle.’ In other words, one doesn’t take chances by using substances which may be dangerous to health. And this is exactly the approach being taken by European Union legislators, who are proposing to ban a range of widely used agricultural crop sprays because they contain endocrine disruptors. It is not disputed that these sprays are very effective against a wide range of pests. What is in dispute is whether they also kill off the busy bees on which we rely to pollinate our crops, our fruit, our vegetables, our cereals and our flowers; and whether the quantities of the sprays to which people like rural dwellers, ramblers, agricultural workers and so on are inadvertently exposed may also cause health problems.

There is absolutely no doubt that endocrine disruptors kill off many of the pests which attack the farmer’s crops. There is, equally, no doubt that a ban on the use of endocrine disruptors before any effective alternative is found will pose a real threat to food production throughout Europe. The costs to Britain’s farmers in lost and damaged crops … estimated by the National Farmers Union as £3 billion – yes, £3 billion - per annum in total will, ultimately, be paid by the consumers - by us. And no, the vegetable gardener and the allotment keeper will not escape, for pest-control chemicals using the horticultural versions of these agricultural sprays will, of course, also be withdrawn from the market.

The question facing EU legislators is whether their New Year resolution should be to stand by their proposed hazard-based approach to the use of endocrine disruptive chemicals in agricultural sprays and ban them; or whether the inherent risks can be minimised by insisting that spraying is carefully controlled until a truly effective replacement is found.