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220211 | Will banned bee-killing pesticides become the new norm? | Secretary of State ignoring expert advice

Will banned bee-killing pesticides become the new norm?

Friday 11 February 2022
The Wildlife Trusts’ lawyers contact the Secretary of State to question the legality of ignoring expert advice

On Tuesday 1st March the Government will decide whether the threshold has been met to allow the use of a banned neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam.

In January, the Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, granted an application by the NFU and British Sugar for emergency authorisation of thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2022. It was granted for the second year running “in recognition of the potential danger posed to the 2022 crop from beet yellows virus” – despite the pesticide being banned in 2018 due to unacceptable risks to the environment, particularly to bees. 

The decision to authorise thiamethoxam this year goes against the recommendation of the Government’s own advisors, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) – they both state that they cannot support the authorisation of the banned neonicotinoid pesticide.

This week, The Wildlife Trusts’ lawyers, Leigh Day, wrote to the Secretary of State, George Eustice citing explicit advice from the Government’s own appointed experts – and revealing contradictions in Government decision-making. They point out:

  • The Government’s conclusion that “potential risks to bees can be mitigated to a low level” is flawed – this conclusion is unsupported (and, indeed, contradicted) by the advice and expert evidence given to the Government. And so, their conclusion was unsustainable and thus unlawful.
  • “the ECP specifically found that “[t]here is new evidence regarding the risk from neonicotinoids globally which adds to the weight of evidence of adverse impact on honeybee behaviour and demonstrated negative impacts on bee colonies.”
  • “the HSE found that the studies that were available to assess the chronic risk to honeybees: “… indicated that there is an unacceptable risk under the standard criteria for a commercial authorization”.”
  • “As regards mitigation, the HSE concluded that “[i]f ‘Cruiser SB’ [the neonicotinoid] is used in 2022, there are no obvious practical solutions for mitigating against the unquantified risks to bees”. 
  • “the HSE, the Expert Committee on Pesticides and the Chief Scientific Officer all agree that there are known sub-lethal dose effects on bees, such as an inability to return to their hive after low-level exposure to Thiamethoxam. They also agree that the lower limit dose for such non-lethal effects is “unknown”.” 
  • The Government’s justification that circumstances justifying the authorisation were “special” and temporary, gave no indication that the alternatives being developed stand any prospect of success, and if they do, there was no discussion of the timeframe in which this will be achieved.

The Wildlife Trusts have requested a response to their legal letter by Friday 18th February 2022. 

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“We’re faced with the shocking prospect that bee-killing pesticides will become the new norm with bans lifted every year. We need to know what plans the Government has for avoiding the use of a product that’s so harmful to pollinators, rivers and people.

“Why isn’t the Government listening to its own expert advisors? In the recent Westminster debate on the issue, this was the question many MPs asked – and yet the Government was unable to respond coherently. 

“And why will Integrated Pest Management support not be available in the new Environmental Land Management Schemes for farmers until 2023? Defra could have brought this more natural approach forward in their recent farming announcements to send a clear message about avoiding pesticides wherever possible and supporting growers to use alternative approaches to farming without them.”

A coalition of charities including The Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth, RSPB and Pesticide Action Network – reacted to last month’s announcement, saying:

“Thiamethoxam is known to have a devastating effect on wildlife – a single teaspoon is toxic enough to kill 1.25 billion bees. Less than two months ago the Government adopted a legally binding commitment to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030 within its flagship Environment Act – the authorisation of this neonicotinoid flies in the face of this commitment and sounds a death knell for millions of bees and other insects.” (Joan Edwards of The Wildlife Trusts.)

Editor's Notes

  • See coalition press release, Government puts bees at risk, 14th January 2022, here.
  • Briefing sent to MPs ahead of the Westminster Hall debate on 2nd February is here.

Environment Act: Despite the legal commitments made in the recently passed Environment Act, populations of bees and other pollinators that are already struggling will be further harmed by allowing this banned pesticide to be used. 

2021: A precarious reprieve for bees. British Sugar and the NFU were successful when it made the same application to use the neonicotinoid last year, but bees were protected by a sudden bout of cold weather which killed off large numbers of aphids, which meant that the threshold for use was not met and thiamethoxam was not used. This precarious reprieve is unlikely to happen this year. 

Concerned members of the public have been contacting MPs about this matter (the majority of MPs have now heard from constituents on this) – and Conservative MPs have been claiming that bees will not be harmed. The same was true in the recent Westminster Hall debate on the matter, held on 2nd February. But these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. It is true that sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and the authorisation only allows the banned chemical to be applied to seeds. However, it is known that even when the pesticide is applied to seeds, only 5% ends up being taken up by the crop, and the rest accumulates in the soil or leaches into the wider environment. 

This can then be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants – and can have fatal impacts on any pollinators which visit them. Even minute traces of these toxic chemicals in the cropped fields or wildflowers plays havoc with bees’ ability to forage and navigate, with catastrophic consequences for the survival of their colony. This was why neonicotinoid pesticides were originally banned in the UK and EU in 2018, and there have been more studies published since then that support this ban. 

In this latest decision, the Government recognises that applying this banned pesticide can pose a threat to bees – for that reason, they advise applying additional weedkiller to fields to kill the wildflowers that grow alongside the sugar beet crop and which might attract bees. They say this is to ‘protect’ the bees from foraging on wildflowers that have been contaminated with the dangerous pesticide, but in reality this will take an important food source away from bees and other insects, and seriously harm already-threatened populations of wildflowers. Additionally, the use of this pesticide on sugar beet is likely to result in thiamethoxam leaching into our rivers and polluting them further, where it could harm over 3,800 invertebrates that spend at least part of their lifecycle in freshwater. 

The fact that this banned neonicotinoid will pollute rivers and other waterways is something that the Government has not yet acknowledged, despite their expert advisors raising these concerns. In their reports to the Government, where they advised against authorising the use of thiamethoxam this year, the experts noted that the predicted levels of the pesticide leaching into water bodies would exceed those deemed acceptable under legislation set out in the Water Framework Directive. This means the neonicotinoid could pose a serious threat to aquatic life living in the ponds, streams and rivers that surround sugar beet fields. Authorising the use of thiamethoxam will therefore add further pressure to our already degraded waterways, already under pressure from sewage overflows and agricultural run-off. 
MPs and Westminster Hall debate is here: In response to criticism from MPs and the general public, the Government has argued that if they don’t authorise the use of banned neonicotinoids to control sugar beet pests, we may end up importing more sugar from abroad. But in reality, it should not be a binary choice between using toxic chemicals at home or using them abroad. With the right support from Government, and proper investment into alternatives such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and disease-resistant varieties, sugar beet growers can move away from relying on neonicotinoids. The Government says it is committed to transitioning away from dangerous pesticides, and farmers need to be offered more support to access alternatives that do not force them to choose between pollinators or pesticides. When will this happen?

Next steps

  • The Wildlife Trusts submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for evidence informing the Government’s decision – we were due to get a response by 26th January but Defra has delayed this until 23rd Feb.
  • Wednesday 8th February 2022: The Wildlife Trusts’ lawyers sent a letter to the Minister, George Eustice. The Wildlife Trusts have requested a response to their legal letter by Friday 18th February 2022.
  • Tuesday 1st March: the Government will decide whether the threshold has been met to use neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. The Wildlife Trusts have significant concerns on the accuracy and reliability of the model used to forecast this threshold level, which in 2019 predicted 39% virus incidence. In reality, the virus incidence recorded in 2019 was just 1.8%.

Wider context

  • Environment Bill targets will soon be published (early February). We need a target for a reduction of all pesticides. Species abundance targets will be set but where does this leave insects which are still declining? Water quality targets will also be announced – neonicotinoids leach into rivers and affect wildlife and our water supply.
  • Food strategy white paper: end of Feb/early March: targets for healthy food will be published.
  • Nature Recovery Green Paper: this will soon be published and it has to shift action for nature up a gear and tackle species declines – which includes boosting the abundance of insects. This green paper must be strong and ambitious to deliver the Government’s own legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030 and to put 30% of nature on land and at sea into recovery. 

Background info

  • Insect declines and why they matter – report launch here. Action for Insects here.
  • Government’s webpage re the derogation with the decision announcement and the accompanying documents can be found here.
  • Public Wildlife Trust campaign – e-action directed at MPs – all MPs have now been contacted on Twitter and many people have emailed MPs direct.