I remember as a child my father’s insect-killing DDT sprayer in the garden shed, and the enthusiasm with which he wielded it in our tiny garden. No one knew then about the immense harm DDT causes, for example to birds of prey. It was passed to them by the animals which they ate and caused thinning of their egg shells, meaning fewer chicks were hatched. DDTs persistence has led to claims that it is now linked to Alzheimer’s disease because sufferers often have high levels of it in their body.
Move on 60 years, and continuing the theme of European Union regulations in my last piece, the current ban on pesticides containing nicotine-like chemicals, or neonicotinoids has now taken on a wider significance. These chemicals were partially banned in 2013 because of the harm they do to bees and other pollinating insects. The insects are vital to our food supplies and we will be in trouble if they are not there to do their job. Since then more than 1100 scientific studies worldwide have revealed that the potential dangers go far beyond bees. The chemicals are accumulating in the wider environment and adversely affecting many species, and the food chains and webs of which they are a part. The widespread contamination has been found in soils, freshwater, wetlands, and even the sea.
There are uncanny echoes of the problems caused by, and the debate about, DDT in the 1960s and 70s prior to its ban in this country in 1986. With both pesticides serious concerns were expressed after about 20 years of use, manufacturers claimed that their products were safe and vigorously denied that any problems were caused, increasing amounts of the chemicals were found in the wider environment, and those who raised concerns were derided and sued by the companies concerned.
It would be foolish to ignore both the science and the parallels between the two products. If we can’t learn from history what can we learn from? When the partial ban is reviewed later this year our Government is likely to argue for its removal: it fiercely resisted the ban in the first place. We all have European MPs though, and they need to be made aware of the increasing evidence of the dangers of neonicotinoids.