The UK’s bees are again at serious risk from a government which repeatedly pledges to protect them. In January 2022, just months after passing its flagship Environment Act 2021, it announced that Syngenta’s Cruiser SB, a brand name for the ‘banned’ neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, would be permitted for use on the UK’s 2022 sugar beet crop.
In 2021, DEFRA had granted a similar ’emergency authorisation’, (called a ‘derogation’) in defiance of its own Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s advice. The 2021 derogation was, in the event, rendered unnecessary by extremely cold weather, which killed off most of the aphids.
The government’s current 25-year Environment Plan, published in 2018, committed to “Supporting further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, in line with scientific evidence” adding that, “Any continuing use should be limited and permitted only where the environmental risks are shown to be very low.” Late in 2021, it announced its flagship Environment Act, which included a commitment to reverse species decline by 2030. This included plans for Integrated Pest Management support to be available as part of a new Environmental Land Management Scheme for farmers from 2023. It also established a new Office for Environmental Protection to replace any EU environmental laws passed after Brexit, but commentators note a failure to guarantee the body’s independence or the strength to enforce its decisions.
The HSE has again warned that the effects on our vital pollinators of temporarily lifting the ban would outweigh any potential benefits. As in 2021, both the government’s Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) and its Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) were also “unable to support an emergency authorisation”. Both also point to increasing scientific evidence of harm from these chemicals. Calling the decision on Cruiser SB “ill thought-out”, Pesticide Action Network UK, one of the first organisations to raise the alarm about neonics, immediately mobilised a wide range of organisations who wrote to call for this decision to be reversed. The reply from DEFRA politely explained that it would not be. A commons debate in February 2022 consisting almost entirely of speeches urging DEFRA to rethink, resolved that the matter had been duly discussed!
The ECP, HSE and Natural England have all raised concerns about the measures planned to mitigate the risks, which include requiring the use of herbicides to minimise the number of flowering weeds in treated sugar beet crops. There are no plans to similarly kill the wildflower margins deliberately planted around many crops to support bees. The bees will not therefore be ‘protected’ from contamination via that route! DEFRA’s stricter mitigation measures for 2022 also include banning the planting of flowering crops in the contaminated soil for a longer period than was stipulated for 2021, even though, as the HSE has pointed out, there is no current science to suggest this interval would be any safer. It concluded that “[i]f Cruiser SB is used in 2022, there are no obvious practical solutions for mitigating against the unquantified risks to bees”. No specific mitigation measures have been offered to reduce the risk of water pollution.
In both ’21 and ’22 the assessment of the risk also significantly ignored bumble bees, other wild species, and other pollinators, focusing only on impacts on honey bees. There are only seven recognised species of honey bee, and they only pollinate specific crops. Thousands of other species of bees pollinate a huge range of plants, and there are many other crucial pollinating insects.
The government’s response to the general outcry has so far been to suggest that it’s either neonics here (with a side order of herbicides) or importing sugar from elsewhere. Yet since a request for a derogation was turned down in 2018, UK sugar beet crops have barely been affected. The Wildlife Trusts have raised concerns about the model used to determine the scale of the emergency. For 2019 it predicted 39% virus incidence. The actual virus incidence was 1.8%. On Tuesday 1st March the Government will finally decide whether this threshold has been met.
There’s definitely an emergency. Our food crops depend on the survival of our pollinators. The government urgently needs to stop forgetting its promises and start properly supporting our farmers in making the transition to the safer farming methods it says it wants.
What you can do
Sign Friends of the Earth’s petition urging the government to make sure its new national plan for pesticide use includes realistic measures to put pesticide reduction at the heart of the UK’s farming. https://act.friendsoftheearth.uk/petition/shape-future-our-countryside
Tweet your MP, using #NoMoreNeonics, or write to them, as suggested by The Wildlife Trusts. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/say-no-neonics