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Neonicotinoids: Cambridge MP demands vote after Defra grants emergency use of pesticide harmful to bees





Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner has called for a Parliamentary vote after the government granted an emergency use of neonicotinoids - pesticides banned by the European Union due to their impact on bees.

The Labour MP, who is shadow minister with national responsibility for pesticide use, described it as a “worrying indication” of the government’s environmental credentials post-Brexit.

Bee numbers have been in dramatic decline
Bee numbers have been in dramatic decline

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced last Friday (January 8) that it was allowing growers in England to use Syngenta’s Cruiser SB - which features the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam - on sugar beet only during 2021, due to the threat to this year’s crop from the beet yellows virus.

“Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and the risks to bees from the sugar beet crop itself were assessed to be acceptable,” said Defra.

Mr Zeichner, who is vice-president of Cambridgeshire Bee Keepers Association and a species champion for the ruderal bumblebee, said: “With up to three quarters of our crops dependent on bees and other pollinators, we all need our bees to be safe.

“This is a worrying indication of the government diverging on hard-won environmental gains following Brexit.

“Local people don’t want pollinator poisons on our fields. As an environment minister I‘m working hard to protect bees, that is why I am calling for a Parliamentary vote to stop the government’s plan to allow bee-killing pesticides to be used again.

“With spring just around the corner, let’s get our voices buzzing for bees.”

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner. Picture: Richard Marsham
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner. Picture: Richard Marsham

Mr Zeichner said he had held meetings with Friends of the Earth on the issue and called on the government to publish the Expert Committee on Pesticides’ full scientific assessment of its use. He has also tabled a series of Parliamentary questions.

Scientific studies have found residual quantities of neonicitinoids can impact on bees’ foraging activity, their flight and navigation, and the success of their colonies. The chemicals can kill bees in larger quantities.

Neonicotinoids taken up by plants or persisting in the soil can have an impact for months or years, and can also leach into waterways.

Secretary of state George Eustice granted the use of thiamethoxam only on fields where the threshold for virus levels was reached.

Environment secretary George Eustice. Pictures: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
Environment secretary George Eustice. Pictures: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

It followed an application from NFU Sugar and British Sugar, which proposed to mitigate the risk to bees from flowering weeds in and around the sugar beet using a weed-killing herbicide, which would limit the numbers growing around treated crops.

NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly said he was “relieved” by the decision.

“ Any treatment will be used in a limited and controlled way on sugar beet – a non-flowering crop – and only when the scientific threshold has been independently judged to have been met,” he said.

“Virus yellows disease is having an unprecedented impact on Britain’s sugar beet crop, with some growers experiencing yield losses of up to 80 per cent, and this authorisation is desperately needed to fight this disease. It will be crucial in ensuring that Britain’s sugar beet growers continue to have viable farm businesses.

“The sector continues to work as quickly as possible to find long-term solutions to virus yellows disease.”

Where used, only cereals can be planted within 22 months of the sugar beet crop being planted and no oilseed rape crop can be planted for 32 months.

The decision follows the ban on outdoor use of thiamethoxam and two other neonicotinoids - clothianidin and imidacloprid - in 2018.

A sugar beet farmer
A sugar beet farmer

At the time, Michael Gove, who was then 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, is greater than previously understood. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”

But Defra said of the partial reversal on the ban: “The government made it clear that it could consider emergency authorisations in special circumstances where authorisation for limited and controlled use appears necessary because of a danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means and where the risk to people, animals and the environment, and in particular to bees and other pollinators, was considered acceptably low.”

“The secretary of state is satisfied there is sufficient evidence to indicate that residues of thiamethoxam and its metabolite deteriorate over time, and that with mitigation measures in place the risks are considered to be acceptably low enough that the benefits outweigh them.”

But the Wildlife Trusts voiced its alarm at the decision.

The foraging of bees is impacted by neonicotinoids
The foraging of bees is impacted by neonicotinoids

It said allowing “seed-dressing” was a method of application that results in only five per cent of the pesticide going where it is targeted - in the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil, from where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants, or leach into rivers and streams where it could harm more than 3,800 invertebrate species.

Mitigating the impact with more herbicide would only further harm populations of wildflowers and the insects that depend on them, the charity suggested.

Joan Edwards, director of public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, added: “The government has bowed to pressure from the National Farmers’ Union even though, three years ago, the UK government supported restrictions on the neonicotinoid pesticides across the European Union, because of the very clear harm that they were causing to bees and other pollinators.

“We will be writing to the Prime Minister requesting that he reverses the Secretary of State’s decision and focus support for farmers to adopt non-chemical alternatives so that agriculture supports nature and does not destroy it.

Sugar beet farmers face a threat to their crops
Sugar beet farmers face a threat to their crops

“Insect populations have suffered drastic declines in the UK – and these are set to have far-reaching consequences for both wildlife and people. Recent evidence suggests we have lost 50 per cent or more of our insects since 1970, and 41 per cent of the Earth's remaining five million insect species are now ‘threatened with extinction’. Insects are food for numerous larger animals including birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians and fish, and they perform vital roles for people too – such as pollination of crops and wildflowers, pest control and nutrient recycling.

“The secretary of state’s decision to authorise the use of an environmentally devastating chemical to increase production of a crop with no nutritional value is madness.

“Instead, the government should be focussing their efforts on regenerative farming approaches, supporting farmers to produce nutritional food which is good for people and has a positive effect on wildlife.”

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