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Date: 19 Jul 2014

Risks of large-scale use of systemic insecticides to ecosystem functioning and services

Abstract

Large-scale use of the persistent and potent neonicotinoid and fipronil insecticides has raised concerns about risks to ecosystem functions provided by a wide range of species and environments affected by these insecticides. The concept of ecosystem services is widely used in decision making in the context of valuing the service potentials, benefits, and use values that well-functioning ecosystems provide to humans and the biosphere and, as an endpoint (value to be protected), in ecological risk assessment of chemicals. Neonicotinoid insecticides are frequently detected in soil and water and are also found in air, as dust particles during sowing of crops and aerosols during spraying. These environmental media provide essential resources to support biodiversity, but are known to be threatened by long-term or repeated contamination by neonicotinoids and fipronil. We review the state of knowledge regarding the potential impacts of these insecticides on ecosystem functioning and services provided by terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems including soil and freshwater functions, fisheries, biological pest control, and pollination services. Empirical studies examining the specific impacts of neonicotinoids and fipronil to ecosystem services have focused largely on the negative impacts to beneficial insect species (honeybees) and the impact on pollination service of food crops. However, here we document broader evidence of the effects on ecosystem functions regulating soil and water quality, pest control, pollination, ecosystem resilience, and community diversity. In particular, microbes, invertebrates, and fish play critical roles as decomposers, pollinators, consumers, and predators, which collectively maintain healthy communities and ecosystem integrity. Several examples in this review demonstrate evidence of the negative impacts of systemic insecticides on decomposition, nutrient cycling, soil respiration, and invertebrate populations valued by humans. Invertebrates, particularly earthworms that are important for soil processes, wild and domestic insect pollinators which are important for plant and crop production, and several freshwater taxa which are involved in aquatic nutrient cycling, were all found to be highly susceptible to lethal and sublethal effects of neonicotinoids and/or fipronil at environmentally relevant concentrations. By contrast, most microbes and fish do not appear to be as sensitive under normal exposure scenarios, though the effects on fish may be important in certain realms such as combined fish-rice farming systems and through food chain effects. We highlight the economic and cultural concerns around agriculture and aquaculture production and the role these insecticides may have in threatening food security. Overall, we recommend improved sustainable agricultural practices that restrict systemic insecticide use to maintain and support several ecosystem services that humans fundamentally depend on.

Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues