Time's up! Minister urged to help sugar farmers go neonic-free and honour ban as deadline approaches to end reliance on bee-harming chemicals.
An application for the use of a banned, bee-harming neonicotinoid on sugar beet seed in 2024 has been submitted to the UK Government – despite an industry commitment to end reliance on the banned pesticide in 2023. In August 2020, British Sugar pleaded for "no more than three years... to give us time to develop alternatives to the seed treatments." Three years has now passed.
Meeting minutes reveal that the Expert Committee on Pesticides, which has repeatedly advised the Government against authorising banned pesticides, now warns that the risks to bees and other pollinators from such a decision outweigh any likely benefits for sugar beet growers.
Farming minister, Mark Spencer, must now decide whether to follow expert advice and European standards – or to allow an authorisation of the banned chemical in the new year.
A minuscule trace of neonicotinoids – which were banned in the UK and across the EU in 2018 – can disrupt a bee's ability to navigate and reproduce, with long-lasting consequences for their survival. When neonicotinoids are washed into streams and rivers, they are extremely toxic to aquatic invertebrates and pollute the water. Yet, for the last three years the UK Government has granted a derogation for the use of the neonicotinoid Thiamethoxam on sugar beet.
In 2017, invertebrate conservation organisation, Buglife, reported that the River Waveney on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, whose catchment contains large areas farmed for sugar beet, was the worst polluted river monitored for levels of five commonly used neonic pesticides. The River Wensum in Norfolk – a Special Area of Conservation for its river life – was also found to be chronically polluted, and the report noted that the Waveney and Wensum Rivers both supply water to The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, an internationally important wetland that supports many endangered aquatic species. [https://www.buglife.org.uk/news/heavy-neonicotinoid-insecticide-contamination-damaging-british-rivers/].
A European High Court ruling on 19 January 2023 found that authorisations for using neonicotinoids were never justified. But on 23 January 2023, the UK Government allowed the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet in defiance of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, which said it was unable to support an authorisation because the "potential adverse effects to honeybees and other pollinators outweigh the likely benefits."
Ben McFarland, Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Director of Wildlife Conservation & Recovery, says: "The prospect of yet another year of neonic use being forced on sugar beet growers by British Sugar is frankly a catastrophe for wildlife in the River Waveney and The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, and for any hope of restoring healthy populations of aquatic invertebrates that are a vital part of their ecosystems.
"No farmer wants to grow crops using banned pesticides – and no one wants their Christmas cake baked with bee-harming sugar. Where are the alternatives that British Sugar claimed it would invest in? All eyes are now on the Minister, Mark Spencer, to uphold the law banning bee-harming pesticides.
"Less than a year ago, the Government committed the UK to reducing the risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half by 2030. Since then, the European Court has ruled against attempts to weaken the ban on neonics. Now we learn that the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides has once more advised against the use of these chemicals, citing unacceptable risks to bees and river health.
"A third of sugar beet farmers decided against using neonics last year, even though they were authorised for use. Many growers are trying to farm in a way that does not harm nature or rivers – yet there is no support for these growers from the industry or Government. British Sugar appears more interested in short-term profits than the long-term sustainability of the farming sector."
Gareth Dalglish, Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Nature Recovery Director, says: "This is a crucial issue for the East. East Anglia is the heart of the British sugar industry, home to the majority of around 3,000 sugar beet farmers and over 100,000 hectares of UK farmland devoted to beet production.
"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 our 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 other invertebrates."
Recent research found that harmful neonicotinoids have been found in more than 10% of English rivers, despite a widespread ban of these chemicals in 2018. In more than half of the rivers where neonics were detected, they were at levels which posed a significant risk to wildlife.
The Wildlife Trusts submitted a formal complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in June this year, raising concerns that the Minister's decision to allow a derogation was flawed and that the emergency authorisation should never have been granted.
Professor Dave Goulson has written extensively on the subject. He summarises the danger: "Neurotoxins persist in soils for years, and they are now known to be found in hedgerow plants, streams and ponds. One teaspoon is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion honeybees (it would kill half of them, and leave the others feeling very unwell). But they do not just pose a threat to bees; any insect living on farmland or in streams that flow from farmland, and any organisms that depend on insects for food (e.g. many birds and fish) are likely to be affected."
The public can join The Wildlife Trusts campaign for better support for nature-friendly farming at https://wtru.st/yes-to-healthy-bees