Agriculture is critically important for African societies and economies, but ensuring food security for Africa’s growing population is a major challenge due to climate change, structural changes in land use and management, and intensification of agriculture, including the use of pesticides. Of particular concern is a group of insecticides called ‘neonicotinoids’. These pesticides render all parts of a plant toxic to all insects and are highly water soluble, meaning they contaminate the soil and water bodies. Therefore they expose all insects and also other organisms to toxic substances. But not all insects are pests. Insects provide a broad range of important ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination, soil development, and natural pest control (where some insect species keep others in check), and are an integral part of sustainable agriculture. Neonicotinoid insecticides have been shown to contribute to the loss of ecosystem services from pollinators and other insects in Europe and elsewhere, and several of them have been banned in the EU and other countries, due to their harmful effect on beneficial insects.
The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) collaborated in a study to examine the implications of neonicotinoid insecticide use for ecosystem services and sustainable agriculture in Africa. The study was conducted between October 2018 and October 2019 and involved two workshops with leading expert scientists from 17 African countries, as well as an extensive review of relevant African research. This activity was stimulated by a study on the impact of neonicotinoids on agriculture and ecosystem services in Europe by the association of the National Science Academies of European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which contributed to subsequent legislation to ban neonicotinoids in Europe.
Maintaining the biodiversity that supports ecosystem services such as pollination and natural pest control is critical to the sustainability of African agriculture, to ensure food security and its contribution to African economies and supporting rural communities. In addition biodiversity provides resilience against climate change and other environmental pressures.
This study concludes that it is urgent to act now to prevent further deterioration in the sustainability of African agriculture and in African biodiversity from indiscriminate and preventative use of neonicotinoids. While the focus here is on the neonicotinoid insecticides, alternative insecticides that deploy the same non-selective neurotoxic effects are already entering the market and should be subject to the same level of scrutiny for potential side effects on non-target organisms and the ecosystem services they provide.
Among the recommendations put forward in the report is that national governments and international funding agencies should substantially strengthen the provision of research, advice and training on sustainable agriculture in national agricultural research institutes and extension services. Better coordination of existing scientific resources, including development of regional centres of expertise, is needed to support development of policies protecting ecosystem services and the sustainability of African agriculture.
There are significant opportunities now to act on existing knowledge about the harmful effects of neonicotinoids, to protect ecosystem services and thus African biodiversity and agricultural sustainability. This review urges further scientific and political engagement with the issues raised, and for development of solutions at national regional, and continental levels.
Neonicotinoids are active substances used in plant protection products to control harmful insects, which means they are insecticides. The name literally means “new nicotine-like insecticides” and they are chemically similar to nicotine. When neonicotinoids are applied to crop plants, all parts of the plant become toxic to insects, including pollen and nectar. This means that all insects consuming parts of the plant are harmed, including honeybees and other pollinators. Neonicotinoids washed into the soil or water bodies harm all insects living there.