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.
Shockingly, the Government then announced it had authorised the use of neonics for the second year in a row. And on 1 March 2022, the government decided that the threshold had been met to allow this use - and that announcement means that thiamethoxam can now be applied to sugar beet crops in England.
This decision ignores the 100,000+ people who appealed to the Prime Minister to reverse the same 'emergency' authorisation made last year, and it disregards the advice of the UK's top health and safety executives and pesticide experts as well as undermining the Government's legally-binding commitment to halt species decline by 2030.
What happened at the Westminster Hall debate?
A debate took place in Westminster Hall on 2 February on the Government's approved use of thiamethoxam in which 21 MPs from across England made their feelings clear - the Government's emergency authorisation is not based on science. Labour MP Luke Pollard, who organised the debate, called out the Government for ignoring its own health and safety experts by allowing the use of neonics.
Conservative MP, Matthew Offord, highlighted that neonics will not only kill bees but other pollinators such as moths and butterflies, reducing biodiversity and harming our ability to tackle climate change.
Many MPs reminded the Government that just three months ago it passed the Environment Act, which set a legally-binding target of reversing the decline in nature by 2030. As Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said, this target means nothing if the Government is still willing to authorise use of toxic pesticides on our fields.
Daniel Zeichner, Shadow Environment Minister for Labour, made it clear that farming and the looking after the environment must be done together, and that farmers must be supported to use alternatives.
So many MPs said lots of their constituents had contacted them about this issue – showing just how important your tweets and emails are in making MPs stand up and say #NoMoreNeonics. A huge thank you to everyone who asked their MP to attend the debate and stand up for bees!
Did my MP attend?
Here is a list of all the MPs who attended the debate, including those who spoke in favour of allowing the use of neonics highlighted with*
Luke Pollard (Lab) – Organiser of the debate
Caroline Lucas (Green)
Tracey Crouch (Con)
Mike Amesbury (Lab)
Liz Twist (Lab)
Matthew Offord (Con)
Fleur Anderson (Lab)
Olivia Blake (Lab)
Virginia Crosbie (Con)
Kerry McCarthy (Lab)
George Howarth (Lab)
Wera Hobhouse (LD)
Lillian Greenwood (Lab)
Margaret Greenwood (Lab)
Jim Shannon (DUP)
Daniel Zeichner – Shadow Minister
Robert Goodwill (Con) *
Caroline Johnson (Con) *
James Wild (Con) *
John Hayes (Con) *
Victoria Prentis – Government Minister who responded to the questions
Got more questions?
Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions below.
What happened last year?
A similar authorisation was also granted last year, but a very cold January and February reduced the numbers of the aphids responsible for transmitting the virus that affects sugar beet. Because of this, the conditions applied to the neonicotinoid’s use were not met, so it was not applied in 2021. However this ‘stay of execution’ does not change the underlying issue – and the neonicotinoid has now been authorised again for 2022.
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.
We wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to listen - and that a ‘pesticides-first’ approach is not science-led policymaking.
The neonic wasn’t used last year after all. Why should we be worried?
On 2nd March 2021, the Government announced that the banned bee-killing neonicotinoid would 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 was not needed. While this was great news for bees, we should not have to rely on the weather, and it’s unlikely we’ll be lucky enough to have a second cold-snap this year.
The Wildlife Trusts feared 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 last 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, as we are seeing in 2022.
I thought neonicotinoids were banned? Why has this happened two years in a row?
In early January 2021, 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 year on, the Government has made the same decision despite being explicitly advised not to by their top health and safety and pesticide experts.
But the Government says this is just temporary and for use in an emergency, so what’s the problem?
This is the second year in a row that the Government have chosen to allow the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet, despite their own experts advising them that this should not go ahead. We are very concerned that this ‘temporary’ measure is going to become an annual occurrence, which undermines the 2018 ban of neonicotinoids and jeopardises the Governments aspirations set out in the 25-year environment plan and the 2021 Environment Act.
In the last year, we have seen even more research published showing the devastating impacts of neonicotinoids and Thiamethoxam on bees, including that the effects of the chemicals can persist and affect several generations of bees after the original exposure. It’s becoming clear that this ‘temporary’ measure will have long-lasting effects on our pollinators.
2021 has also seen British Sugar negotiate a new contract with sugar beet growers, which will provide compensation for growers who suffer yield losses as a result of virus yellows. This means farmers will be buffered against potential financial losses as a result of crop disease, but the Expert Committee on Pesticides notes that this has not been taken into account in the latest application for emergency authorisation. These developments over the last year make this latest decision even more unjustified.
Instead of continuing to fall back on using toxic neonicotinoids, the Government needs to actively and urgently dedicate resources and energies into more support and funding to help farmers sustainably transition to regenerative practices and IPM. This is not happening at the pace required, and the repeated authorisation of chemicals is hindering the development and adoption of these practices.
Neonicotinoids are harmful to insect life in miniscule amounts; for example, just one teaspoon (5 g) of neonicotinoid is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1 ¼ billion honeybees. They have also proved to be very persistent in the environment, turning up in soils five years or more after they were last used. Once in woody plants, such as flowering hedgerow shrubs, they also persist for years. As a result of all this evidence, The European Food Standards Agency concluded that there were no safe uses for these chemicals, even over very short timescales.
Our fears that this will become an annual authorisation which quickly becomes part of routine use of pesticides in the UK are well justified, given what we have seen in Europe over the last few years. Since the EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, EU countries have issued at least 67 different “emergency authorisations” for outdoor use of these chemicals1. These authorisations were often granted repeatedly, or without any apparent evidence of an unusual or ‘emergency’ situation as justification. With climate change set to increase the frequency of warmer and wetter winters in the UK, boosting the number of aphids which spread the sugar beet virus, there is a significant risk that the emergency authorisation granted by the Government for the use of thiamethoxam in 2021 and 2022 could become a common, if not annual, occurrence and the UK could see the return of routine application of neonicotinoid pesticides.
What do The Wildlife Trusts think about this?
The Wildlife Trusts are shocked that this decision has been taken for a second year in a row, despite further evidence being released this year demonstrating the terrible impacts of Thiamethoxam on bees. We strongly oppose this decision, and will be urging the Government to listen to their own appointed experts and reverse the emergency 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.
The Government has only recently enshrined into law a target to halt species loss by 2030. It is clear that this decision undermines their own legally binding targets, not just our own goals for nature.
It was only weeks ago that the Government passed the 2021 Environment Act, which enshrined into law a target to halt species loss by 2030. The decision to allow this bee-killing pesticide seriously undermines this commitment, at a time when our natural world is already in crisis.
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 32 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.
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 a particularly mild winter in 2019/2020 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.