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220301 | UK overrules scientific advice lift ban on bee-harming pesticide, Eustice not "rule out completely risk to bees"

To minimise risks to bees, George Eustice says that farmers will be forbidden from growing flowering plants for 32 months after the sugar beet crop. But he admitted it was not possible to "rule out completely a degree of risk to bees".

Banned' bee-harming pesticide approved for use, despite expert advice


17 January
BeeImage source, Getty Images

A pesticide which can harm bees has been approved for use in 2022.

Emergency use of a product containing the chemical thiamethoxam has been authorised in England because of a virus which affects sugar beets.

The decision came despite expert advisers finding pollution from the pesticide would damage river life, and requirements for use had not been met.

But Environment Secretary George Eustice said product use would be "limited and controlled".

In 2018, an almost total ban was put in by the EU and UK because of the serious damage the chemical could cause to bees.

Charities and campaign groups are angry at the chemical now being approved for use.

Yellow virus

As part of the government's decision, Mr Eustice said thiamethoxam could only be used once a virus threshold had been reached, to ensure use "only if necessary".

British Sugar successfully applied for an exemption to allow the banned pesticide to be used in England this year because of the threat posed by yellow virus.

Sugar beetImage source, Getty Images
Sugar beet is important for the production of sugar

There was controversy last year when ministers gave farmers approval to use the pesticide, though the cold winter meant it was never actually used.

Scientific studies have linked the use of these chemicals to the falling numbers of honeybees, wild bees and other animals which pollinate plants.

At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, who was the environment secretary then, said the UK was in favour as it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk".

To minimise risks to bees, George Eustice says that farmers will be forbidden from growing flowering plants for 32 months after the sugar beet crop.

But he admitted it was not possible to "rule out completely a degree of risk to bees".

'Betrayal of promises'

The decision has been criticised by environmental charities.

The "farming system would collapse" without bees, RSPB senior policy officer Stephanie Morren says.

"Across England the wildlife we love is in decline, even the buzzing of bees in our farmlands and countryside is becoming quieter every year."

Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife, said it was "shameful" no action had been taken to make sure "bee and wildlife destroying pesticides are properly assessed as being pollinator safe".

BeeImage source, Getty Images
Bees are important in the process of pollinating plants

Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, said the move was "a clear betrayal of promises" made to protect the natural world.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Sandra Bell criticised the decision for going "against the recommendation" of their own experts.

The Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, called it "scandalous".

Studies have shown that the group of pesticides damage the nervous systems and navigational abilities of bees and other pollinators. The pesticides can also end up in streams and rivers and harm aquatic life, and can persist for a long time in the environment.

Their outdoor use was banned in almost all EU countries in 2018. At the time of the ban, Michael Gove, then environment secretary, said the UK was in favour because it couldn't "afford to put our pollinator populations at risk".

UK overrules scientific advice by lifting ban on bee-harming pesticide

Campaigners aghast as emergency exemption on use of thiamethoxam granted due to risk to sugar beet crop

Female blue mason bee (Osmia leaiana)
Neonicotinoids pose a risk to both wild bees and honeybees. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy
Damian Carrington Environment editor
Tue 1 Mar 2022 19.08 GMTLast modified on Tue 1 Mar 2022 22.22 GMT

An insecticide banned due to its harm to bees will be used on sugar beet in Britain this year after ministers authorised an emergency exemption. The government overruled its own scientific advisers and the decision was called “scandalous” by campaigners.

The neonicotinoid, called thiamethoxam, was banned in 2018 across Europe after a series of studies found it damaged bees. But British Sugar applied for an emergency exemption and on Tuesday the conditions for the exemption were met.

A national forecast of the proportion of the crop expected to suffer from virus yellows, a disease spread by aphids, predicted a level of 69%, far above the 19% threshold that had been set.

The exemption was also granted in 2021 but was not implemented as the forecast for virus yellows turned out to be low. In 2020, according to the government, the virus cut the national yield of sugar beet by a quarter.

A beet leaf infected with yellows virus
A beet leaf infected with virus yellows, which is spread by aphids. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

“The approval to use this bee-killing pesticide is scandalous,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts. “The government has outlined ambitions to restore nature and reverse declines of precious wildlife. But at the same time it is giving a green light to use a highly toxic chemical that could harm pollinating insects and pollute soils and rivers.”

“We need to restore the natural world and gradually wean ourselves off using chemicals in agriculture,” he said. “It’s time the government listened to their own experts who have said they cannot support the use of this pesticide as it’s simply too dangerous.” The Wildlife Trusts also said the virus yellows forecast had been wrong in the past.

Matt Shardlow, head of the charity Buglife, said: “It is distressing that rivers and flowers in eastern England this summer will be polluted with toxic insecticides, to the massive detriment of bees, mayflies and many other animals. Neonicotinoids are rightly banned and these approvals, against all expert advice, must stop.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The decision to approve an emergency authorisation was not taken lightly and was based on robust scientific assessment.

“We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorisations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives.”

The British Beet Research Organisation said: “All sugar beet growers must adhere to the robust stewardship programme that has been agreed by the Health and Safety Executive.”

It said flowering crops which would attract pollinators could not be grown in fields treated with the pesticide for 32 months after application.

In January, when the exemption was granted in principle, the environment secretary, George Eustice, wrote: “The dose level at which no negative impacts on bees occur is unknown.

“For this reason, it was not possible to rule out completely a degree of risk to bees (and this is the case even with a 32-month exclusion) from flowering plants in or near the field in the years after neonicotinoid use.”

About two-thirds of the UK’s sugar comes from homegrown sugar beet. Twelve EU countries including France, Belgium, Denmark and Spain have given emergency authorisations for neonicotinoid use in the last three years.

In 2017, Michael Gove, then the environment secretary, said: “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”

The scientists behind a volume of studies published in 2021 said that insect populations globally are suffering “death by a thousand cuts”, in part due to pesticides, and that many were falling at “frightening” rates that were “tearing apart the tapestry of life”.

Virtually all farms could significantly cut their pesticide use while still producing as much food, according to a 2017 study.