Oilseed rape flowers opening©Tim Scrivener

The argument surrounding the use of neonicotinoids has intensified following the publication of a new report that claims this class of pesticides is impacting birds and other wildlife, not just bees.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), an influential independent scientific European body that seeks to inform EU policymakers, has published a report looking into the effects of these pesticides on ecosystem services such as pollination and natural pest control.

The 70-page report acknowledges that the use of pesticides involves a “balancing act” between maintaining food production levels and the risk to non-target species and the environment.

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But the report claims that a focus on bees has “distorted” the debate around neonicotinoids and this did not show what was happening to other pollinator species and birds.

It suggested there was an “increasing body of evidence” that neonicotinoids were having severe effects on a range of organisms that provide ecosystem services, such as moths and butterflies, parasitic wasps, ladybugs and earthworms.

The European Commission issued a two-year ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides – thiamethoxam, imidacloprid and clothianidin – on 1 December 2013, after they were linked to a decline in the bee population.

The commission welcomed the EASAC report and said it would start its review of scientific evidence around neonicotinoids by the end of May. The outcome will decide whether the ban will be scrapped or extended further. 

However, the report has received mixed reviews from organisations both for and against the ban.

The UK Crop Protection Association (CPA) said the report was not new research and was a “very selective reading of some of the literature, especially from organisations well known for their opposition to neonicotinoids”.

CPA chief executive Nick von Westenholz said: “The review reflects a bias of the anti-neonicotinoids campaign toward highly theoretical laboratory tests rather than fully considering published field studies and other independent research which proves the safety of these pesticides.”

The only effect of the restrictions for far, he added, had been a “steady stream of reports from farmers that their crops are suffering serious losses”.

NFU vice-president Guy Smith said the neonicotinoids ban had removed a vital tool from the toolbox for UK farmers.

He added: “Many farmers across the nation have seen their crops compromised by cabbage stem flea beetle – a pest that was eating away at our plants before they even surfaced due to the absence of the neonicotinoid seed coating protecting the plant in its first growth stages.

“Its larvae are now inside many plants, causing damage from the inside out. We are yet to see the potentially destructive impacts of turnip yellow virus infections.”

But Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said the EASAC review confirmed a number of recent individual studies showing clearly that neonicotinoids have an adverse impact on birds as well as bees.

He added: “The Soil Association will call on the next government to welcome the ban on three neonicotinoids and call for it to be made permanent.

“More importantly, the next government needs to ensure that these dangerous chemicals are banned completely.”