Banned chemicals have no place in a wilder future (credit Paustius / Shutterstock)

UK Government authorises use of bee-killing pesticide for sugar beet


Friday 19 January, 2024


'Emergency' authorisation to use a highly damaging neonicotinoid has today been approved by UK Government, despite nearly 15,000 people calling on them to choose better support for farmers and thriving wildlife, instead of bee-killing pesticides.

On 18th January 2024, the UK Government's Farming Minister, Mark Spencer, has approved 'emergency' authorisation for the use of the highly damaging neonicotinoid, Thiamethoxam, on sugar beet for the fourth year in a row. This pesticide has been banned in the UK since 2018 but has been approved for use on British sugar beet crops. This announcement comes despite an industry commitment to end reliance on the banned pesticide by 2023.

Thiamethoxam is lethal - even a miniscule trace of this toxin can disrupt a bee's ability to navigate and reproduce, significantly reducing the chance of survival. With a third of UK food crops pollinated by insects, and their contribution to the UK economy estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds per year - our food system cannot function without bees.

Research published in 2023 found harmful neonicotinoids present in more than 10% of English rivers, home to 3,800 invertebrate species, despite a widespread ban of these chemicals in 2018. Today's decision will put the health of UK rivers at even further risk.

Barnaby Coupe, land use policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, says:

"The Farming Minister's decision to authorise the use of a banned neonicotinoid pesticide on sugar beet for the fourth year in a row is a deathblow for wildlife, a backwards step in evidence-based decision making, and a betrayal of farmers who are producing food sustainably.

"On the same day the Office for Environmental Protection has published a report revealing UK Government is still not on track to meet its own environmental commitments, it is shocking that politicians are still choosing to support short-term corporate profits at the expense of nature and the long-term sustainability of farm businesses.

"The Wildlife Trusts are deeply disappointed that this decision ignores a third of sugar beet farmers in England who chose not to use this chemical in previous years, and who will now be actively disadvantaged this year. It is entirely possible to produce food in a way that helps rather than harms nature – and UK farmers know that the use of this chemical is not a long-term solution.

"This should include providing routes to market for farmers growing non-neonic treated sugar, and providing targeted financial support for non-neonic beet growers to cover additional risk currently taken on by the farmer."

Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Nature Recovery Director, says:

"We are committed to helping Norfolk's farmers to restore nature and are disappointed by the Minister's decision.

"This is a crucial issue for Norfolk. East Anglia is the heart of the British sugar industry, home to the majority of around 3,000 sugar beet farmers. We recognise the impact that Virus Yellows Disease can have on such an important crop for many arable farms across the county and know that many of Norfolk's farmers are passionate about producing crops in a wildlife-friendly way.

"In order to combat the biodiversity crisis and achieve the internationally agreed target of 30% of our land and seas managed for nature by 2030, it's vital that beet farmers are supported to deliver a truly sustainable food source in a way that protects the future of our pollinators and reduces pollution in our rivers.

"We will continue to campaign for more support for the Norfolk farmers we know are already choosing not to use neonicotinoids and the great many more who would move to alternatives if it was made a more compelling business decision."

Ben McFarland, Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Director of Wildlife Conservation & Recovery, says:

"Suffolk Wildlife Trust is deeply disappointed that the UK Government has once again approved the emergency use of the banned pesticide thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid that is devastatingly toxic to bees and other pollinators. Thiamethoxam finds it ways into rivers and streams, including the River Waveney on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, exposing the aquatic invertebrates that live there and putting the health of wildlife in our waterways at risk.

"Almost a third of farmers in England chose not to use Thiamethoxam-treated seeds in 2022. British Sugar and NFU need to do more to support nature-friendly farming and reduce the sugar industry's reliance on toxic chemicals that compromise the health of nature in Suffolk and East Anglia. We work with many farmers and farming clusters in Suffolk who are making brilliant adaptations to their land and practices to be more nature-friendly."

The Wildlife Trusts submitted a formal complaint about the Minister's decision to grant authorisations in previous years to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in June 2023, which is still under consideration. The UK Government's decision to authorise this chemical is in contradiction with the OEP's report released today: Progress on improving the natural environment in England. The report states that UK Government's efforts to manage exposure to chemicals and pesticides has been limited and they are largely off track to meet its commitments.

Approximately fifteen thousand people wrote to Mark Spencer, the Farming Minister, asking him to provide more support for farmers, healthy wildlife, and unpolluted soils and rivers - instead of another year of banned, toxic chemicals. Today, Mr Mark Spencer said no.
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