What’s the situation?
The Government has recently decided to authorise the emergency use of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed, in response to a virus – beet yellows virus - which threatens the crop. These highly damaging pesticides were banned in the EU back in 2018, a move which was supported by the UK at the time. The then Environment Secretary Michael Gove explicitly stated these restrictions would be kept in place after Brexit.
Less than six months ago, the Government pledged to support nature’s recovery. This latest decision goes against all the commitments our current Government has made to help nature and their stated vision to tackle the biodiversity crisis.
Why are we so worried about this authorisation?
Many have pointed out that this is a one-off, emergency authorisation for 2021 in response to a specific threat facing the sugar beet crop, and other EU countries have applied for the same exemption. However, we are not reassured that this is a one-off. DEFRA has recognised that this will likely continue for at least the following year and in to 2023 (1).
It’s important to recognise that even temporary use will likely have an impact on bee and pollinator populations. We are concerned that, with the climate emergency set to increase the frequency of warmer and wetter winters - thus boosting the number of aphids which spread sugar beet virus, it will become an annual authorisation that quickly becomes part of routine use of pesticides in the UK.
Emergency pesticide authorisation risks slowing down crucial research on alternative crop varieties which are far more resistant to virus yellows. Without these alternatives, the climate crisis will make the need for neonicotinoids even greater in the future.
What’s the damage from neonicotinoids?
Recent evidence suggests we have lost 50% or more of our insects since 1970, and 41% of the Earth's remaining five million insect species are now 'threatened with extinction'. This has far-reaching consequences for both wildlife and people. With a third of our food crops pollinated by insects, we have a lot to lose.
A similar application to use neonicotinoids was refused in 2018 by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of ‘unacceptable environmental risks’. These risks remain unchanged.
Whilst the current authorisation only allows “seed-dressing” of sugar beet crops with neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, research has indicated that only 5% of the pesticide will actually reach the crop. The rest will accumulate in the soil, where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants, or could leach into rivers and streams where it can harm over 3,800 invertebrate species, which spend at least part of their life cycle in freshwater. Tiny amounts of this highly toxic chemical will kill invertebrates living in the soil and will do so indiscriminately killing nemaotodes, earthworms, mites and billions of bacteria and protozoa.
Additionally, although sugar beet is a non-flowering crop, flowering ‘weeds’ which also grow in these fields will absorb neonicotinoids through the contaminated soil. These ‘weeds’ or wildflowers will attract pollinators who may then be harmed by the noenicitinoids both in the current growing season and in following years whilst neonicotinoids remain present in the soil.
To offset this, the authorisation proposes adding weed killer to sugar beet fields, 'protecting' bees by killing the contaminated wildflowers that grow alongside the sugar beet. Doing this would of course seriously harm already-threatened populations of wildflowers and the insects that depend on them.
Supporting farmers and our environment together
Being fortunate to work closely with farmers and landowners across Yorkshire, we have taken the time to listen to their views on this topic, alongside other issues facing many in the industry. We are not frustrated at any individual farmer’s choice to use neonicotinoids, but that the Government is creating a choice between dealing with the plight of farmers and the plight of bees and wild pollinators.
We know that farmers are experiencing the impact of the climate emergency and believe that they should not have to choose between nature or crop, pollinators or pesticides. We are very disappointed that farmers have been directed to this retrograde step.
We believe that Government should be focusing efforts on regenerative farming approaches, supporting more farmers to make the transition to Integrated Pest Management and helping them to become more resilient to the climate emergency and the challenges it brings.
We can and must find ways to tackle diseases like beet yellows virus. We believe that a long-term solution means moving away from short-term chemical fixes and instead focusing government policy to focus the agricultural industry in a more sustainable direction, providing financial incentives, guidance and assurance from organisations like ourselves where it is needed, and funding research into less destructive disease and pest management techniques.
What we’re asking for
When it comes to the use of pesticides, we have been and continue to publicly call for:
- A halt to the unnecessary use of pesticides where people live, work and farm, with support for all sectors to make the transition towards becoming pesticide free.
- A quantitative UK pesticide reduction target as good as, if not better than, the EU’s target to reduce by 50% the overall use of – and risk from – chemical pesticides by 2030
- Support for farmers to adopt Integrated Pest Management and other agro-ecological practices.
- No weakening of UK pesticide standards through future trade deals, including the UK’s current hazard-based approach to pesticide authorisations.
Above all, we need to move beyond a binary debate about farm incomes versus the environment, to one that puts a resilient agriculture at the centre of our landscape, our soils and our wildlife’s rejuvenation.