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To put nature in recovery, we must overturn the decision to allow bee-killing pesticides

Lucy Pegg, Public Affairs Officer at the Wildlife Trusts, writes on the damage risked to nature by the decision to give emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB to treat sugar beet seed in 2022.

February 2022

Legalising a pesticide which kills bees, harms wildflowers and pollutes waterways would be a mistake- especially when the Government has just made a legally binding commitment to halt the decline in nature by 2030. Yet allowing the use of a banned pesticide in England is what the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon George Eustice MP, has decided to do for the second year in a row.

On 14th January, Defra issued an emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB to treat sugar beet seed in 2022, following an application for this emergency derogation from British Sugar and the National Farmers Union (NFU). This product contains the neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam, an incredibly harmful pesticide, particularly for pollinators. Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic pesticides, meaning they affect the nervous systems of bees and other insects, causing paralysis and death. Academic and author, Professor Dave Goulson, has warned that one teaspoon of this type of chemical is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees, equivalent to four lorryloads of bees.

The Wildlife Trusts strongly oppose the authorisation. We’re calling on everyone who cares about nature to stand up for the bees too. We need you to ask your MP to get Defra to overturn this shocking decision. We must show the Government that our pollinators will be protected by those who care about nature and the future of our planet.

This year’s decision to authorise Cruiser SB is even more concerning than last year’s decision. The Environment Act, which became law in November 2021, sets a legal target to halt the decline of nature by 2030. By authorising the use of neonicotinoids, the UK Government are damaging their own ability to meet this legal commitment. The decision also went against the advice of the experts – the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and Health and Safety Executive both advised against a derogation because of unacceptable environmental risks. The Government’s decision to allow the use of neonicotinoids isn’t just harmful to nature – it doesn’t make sense. When these pesticides were banned within the EU in 2018, the then-Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, said the UK would keep the ban after Brexit, unless the scientific evidence changed. It hasn’t – so why the change of heart?

We know the Secretary of State has come under pressure from the sugar industry and the National Farmers Union (NFU) to overturn the ban. The NFU and British Sugar claim the pesticide seed treatment is needed due to the risks posed by beet yellows virus which is spread by aphids. But this is short sighted and ignores a much bigger, vastly more dangerous problem we face. Pest infestations are increasing because of wetter, warmer temperatures caused by climate change, which allow aphids to survive over winter – far from being a solution, in the long-term environment-destroying neonicotinoids exacerbate climate change. Nature has a critical role to play in mitigating and adapting to the global climate crisis, but it cannot do this while under attack from lethal poisons.

The problem isn’t just that the Government are allowing these pesticides to be used, it’s the way they will be applied to crops too. The emergency authorisation allows “seed-dressing” of sugar beet crops with neonicotinoids, a method of application that results in only 5% of the pesticide reaching the crop. The rest accumulates in the soil, where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants visited by bees, or can leach into water sources and affect wildlife that lives there. Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop, but flowering ‘weeds’ which also grow in fields will attract bees. Worryingly, the UK Government accepts this risk and proposes to address this through additional herbicide use to control ‘weeds’ and ‘protect bees’ – meaning yet more pesticides on our fields.

Many MPs are sympathetic to the concerns raised by The Wildlife Trusts and other environmental groups, but claim there is no other option for farmers. We know this is how many farmers feel too, with many arguing that the authorisation is only temporary too. However, the same application for emergency use was successfully made last year. In fact, in their application British Sugar and the NFU have confirmed they will likely seek another derogation for 2023. We fear derogations for neonicotinoids will become routine, as in Europe where emergency authorisations are often granted repeatedly or without evidence of an emergency situation.

Farmers should not have to choose between nature or crop, pollinators or pesticides – and with the right support from Government they don’t need to. Through continued research into disease-resistant varieties and Government support for Integrated Pest Management (IPM), sugar beet growers can move away from their reliance on pesticides. There are currently no organic sugar beet growers in the UK, but growing production of organic beets in Europe shows this is a viable option.

Since 2018, the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) have conducted trials to assess varietal resistance to virus yellows and have identified varieties which are far more resistant to virus yellows. Emergency pesticide authorisation risks slowing down crucial research on these alternatives. Without these alternatives, climate change will make farming unsustainable and make the need for neonicotinoids even greater in the future.

Allowing neonicotinoid pesticides might be the easy, short-term response to beets yellows virus – but it will kill our bees, damage biodiversity and fail to solve the problem in the long-term. The Wildlife Trusts are shocked that the Secretary of State has used his power to make a decision that goes against the advice of his own experts and only makes farming less sustainable as the climate crisis worsens. We urge him to stop this harmful step for nature – and need you to make your MP aware of this damage to our ecosystem.

Lucy Pegg is Public Affairs Officer at The Wildlife Trusts 

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.