There is no place for neonicotinoids
In January 2021, the Government announced emergency authorisation of the highly damaging neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam for use on sugar beet. A similar application was refused in 2018 by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of unacceptable environmental risks.
On March 2nd 2021, after a cold spell that reduced aphid counts the Government announced that the neonicotinoid would not be needed and they would not be proceeding with this highly damaging authorisation this year. However this ‘stay of execution’ does not change the underlying issue – that the neonicotinoid could be allowed in the future.
Evidence has shown the loss of 50% or more of our insects since 1970, and the shocking reality that 41% of the Earth's remaining five million insect species are now 'threatened with extinction’. Farmers should not have to choose between farming and nature. We want farmers to be supported to adopt non-chemical alternatives that are proven to support nature long-term.
Got more questions?
Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions below.
The Goverment have announced that the neonic will not be used this year. So why should we be worried?
On 2nd March 2021, the Government announced that the banned bee-killing neonicotinoid will not be used on sugar beet. After a cold January and February numbers of the virus-transmitting aphids, which can attack sugar beet, dropped. Because of this the neonicotinoid is not needed. While this is great news for this year's bees it does not change the underlying issue – that the neonicotinoid could be allowed in the future.
While The Wildlife Trusts are pleased that the Government will not be proceeding with this highly damaging authorisation this year, this ‘stay of execution’ does not change the underlying issue – that the neonicotinoid could be allowed in the future.
The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Secretary of State’s decision to grant emergency authorisation was flawed and legally unsustainable, and the fact that the virus threshold was not met this year after an uncharacteristically cold January and February does not ensure that neonicotinoids will not be applied to treat sugar beet seeds in future seasons, and have devastating impacts on UK wildlife.
The threat of neonicotinoids has not gone away.
I thought neonicotinoids were banned, so why has this issue cropped up now?
In early January, the Government announced an emergency lifting of restrictions of the highly damaging neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam. The Secretary of State, George Eustice, made the decision in response to requests from the sugar industry because of the potential danger posed from beet yellows virus, which is spread by aphids. A similar application was refused in 2018 by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides as they decided that there were unacceptable environmental risks related to its use.
But the Government says this is just temporary and for use in an emergency, so what’s the problem?
The emergency authorisation allows the limited use of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021 in England. However, Defra (the Government’s Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs) has recognised that this will likely continue for at least the following year and into 2023.
With climate change set to increase the frequency of warmer and wetter winters in the UK, limiting the opportunity for natural die-off of the aphids that spread the sugar beet virus and boosting their numbers, there is a significant risk that an emergency authorisation granted by the Government for the use of thiamethoxam could become a common, if not annual, occurrence and the UK could see the return of routine application of neonicotinoid pesticides. We are yet to see any evidence that the Government is taking action to ensure this is genuinely a one-off.
What do The Wildlife Trusts think about this?
The Wildlife Trusts strongly oppose the decision to lift restrictions on thiamethoxam and are urging the Prime Minister to use his powers to reverse the authorisation.
In Insect Declines and Why They Matter (2019), a report published by an alliance of Wildlife Trusts, evidence points to the loss of at least 50% of our insects since 1970, with a further 41% of the Earth's remaining five million insect species now 'threatened with extinction’. With a third of our food crops pollinated by insects, and as many as 87% of our plants pollinated by animals (and in the majority by insects) there is a lot to lose. Much of our wildlife - be it birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals or fish - rely on insects for food. Without insects we face the collapse of our natural world.
The Wildlife Trusts want a wilder future, where the value of our insects is respected and where insect populations are healthy and more abundant than today. We want farmers to be supported to adopt non-chemical alternatives so that agriculture supports nature, rather than destroy it.
Are other countries are doing the same?
Since the EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, EU countries have issued at least 67 different “emergency authorisations” for outdoor use of these chemicals[i]. These authorisations have often been granted repeatedly and without any apparent evidence of an unusual or ‘emergency’ situation as justification. The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that the UK could follow the same trend, leading to a backward slide in our environmental standards.
In Europe, the European Commission has referred the use of these emergency powers to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) for review, with the likelihood that they will restrict or potentially remove these powers altogether in the future for member countries of the European Union. This would not apply to the UK, as it is no longer a member of the European Union.
Has this decision been triggered by the UK leaving the European Union?
No, the ability for governments to permit emergency derogations on application has been in place since the ban came into force and has been utilised by some EU countries (as detailed above). The neonicotinoid ban and ability for Government intervention has been carried across into British law on leaving the EU.
However, this decision sits at odds with recent Government promises on restoring nature and biodiversity, with the risk that it could signal the start of an agenda to weaken environmental standards in the UK.
Isn’t sugar beet a non-flowering crop? How can it affect bees?
The Government has stated that authorised applications will have to comply to strict conditions to ensure that wildlife is not harmed, but this assertion does not stand up to scrutiny:
- The authorisation allows “seed-dressing” of sugar beet crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, a method of application that results in only 5% of the pesticide going where it is targeted, in the crop[i]. The rest ends up accumulating in the soil, from where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants, with fatal impacts on any pollinators that visit them.
- Furthermore, the chemical can leach into rivers and streams where it could harm over 3,800 invertebrate species, which spend at least part of their life cycle in freshwater.
[i] 0 Sur, R. & Stork, A. (2003) Uptake, translocation and metabolism of imidacloprid in plants. Bulletin of Insectology, 56, 35–40
Why are you concerned about the proposed herbicidal programmes?
We understand that the herbicidal programmes proposed in the application for the use of thiamethoxam may be 'standard practice' to control competing non-crop plants during sugar beet early growth and plants which may act as hosts for virus yellows. However, due to the persistent nature of this neonicotinoid in the soil, it is anticipated that further herbicide treatments will be needed in and between future crops.
The conditions of the authorisation state that no flowering crops are to be planted for at least 22 months after treatment, and so following this rationale flowering "weeds" in and around the crop will also need to be controlled over that time. This implies that there will be additional herbicide use, above and beyond standard practice within the sugar beet crop, which the Expert Committee on Pesticides has warned would increase risks to non-target insects.
It is deeply concerning that a condition of the emergency authorisation which is designed to 'protect' bees may mean yet more harmful pesticides are applied on our fields, making them wildlife deserts for years to come. We believe the Government must focus funding and efforts on regenerative farming approaches which supports nature's recovery.
What can I do to help?
Why create a new petition and not support other petitions that are out there?
We are pleased to see so many people objecting to this decision and would encourage everyone to support as many different messages as they can to ensure the Government hears from the public.
We are embedded within our local communities and are therefore uniquely placed to tell the story of nature’s decline on the ground and work closely with many farmers and land-managers to help them work with nature. Our petition is aimed at the Prime Minister because he has led on the Government’s pledges and commitments for nature and shown public support for our aims around nature’s recovery, and because we believe the decision made by the Secretary of State is flawed (in process as well as reasoning), we want the PM to use his powers to do what’s necessary.
Those adding their name to our petition can be assured that The Wildlife Trusts will be speaking directly to Government about this on their behalf - and the more voices we can represent, the stronger we become!
Our form also provides individuals with the opportunity to contact their MP directly to ask them to speak up for you with the Government. See link at the bottom of the page too, for a briefing that you can send to your MP, with more information on.
How else do you expect farmers to deal with pests?
Through continued research into disease-resistant varieties and Government support for Integrated Pest Management (IPM), sugar beet growers can move away from the reliance on highly damaging chemical pesticides.
There is growing evidence that it is possible to greatly reduce pesticide use while maintaining comparable crop yields if sufficient effort and support is made available to develop ecologically-based IPM methods. IPM is equally applicable to non-organic as well as organic farming, and to non-farming situations like parks and gardens. These techniques can also often be more profitable than traditional management, due to reducing the financial costs of chemical application.
Furthermore, since the refusal of emergency authorisation in 2018, the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) has conducted trials to assess varietal resistance to virus yellows. Of 12 varieties assessed in 2019, the BBRO reported that one variety in particular had no significant drop in yield when infested with beet mild yellowing virus and only a slight drop in yield (25 per cent) when infested with beet yellows virus; far lower levels than expected from a traditional susceptible variety[i].
Lechenet, M., Dessaint, F., Py, G., Makowski, D., Munier-Jolain, N. (2017) Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms. Nature Plants 3: 17008 12
What is an Integrated Pest Management System?
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to managing pests, diseases or weeds in which chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort, if at all. Many IPM practices that replace toxic chemical applications are good for wildlife because they focus on creating healthy soils and whole-farm ecology rather than just field margins or features.
If the Prime Minister overturns the decision what do you expect affected farmers to do instead?
The Wildlife Trusts believe that Government shouldn’t force a choice between dealing with the plight of farmers and the plight of bees and wild pollinators. Many farmers feel they have no other options at the moment. Farmers are in the eye of the storm, experiencing the impact of climate change and more extreme weather events including the mild winter last year, which fuelled the virus affecting sugar beet. Alternatives exist and should be supported, and our farmers shouldn’t suffer as a result.
- Farmers need support to become more resilient to climate change and to move towards pesticide alternatives, to continue research into sugar beet viruses which are resistant to virus yellows diseases and help with implementing IPM measures.
- The Government should be focusing efforts on regenerative farming approaches, supporting farmers to produce nutritional food which is good for people and has a positive effect on wildlife, not giving out licences to pollute soil and kill bees.