Statement on the UK's temporary use of neonicotinoid pesticides and the EU’s ban.
It is important to point out that the emergency use of Neonicotinoids (neonics) is not directly related to Brexit or the end of the Transition Period as is being misreported by campaigners. 13 EU countries have granted similar derogations for neonicotinoid seed treatments to be used on their sugar beet crop this year. At least 67 emergency derogations have taken place in the EU since the ban was put in place.
However, it is useful for me to provide some background to illustrate my position. I know that safeguarding the future of pollinators is essential for responsible farming. In 2013, I announced the UK’s first National Strategy on Pollinators in my position as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
When neonics first came on the market in the mid-1990s, they were hailed as a breakthrough innovation for two main reasons: 1) they could be applied as a “seed treatment,” a coating on the plant seed, drastically reducing the amount of pesticide used and the need for numerous spray applications throughout the growing season; and 2) they are targeted specifically to insect physiology and are not harmful to humans - such as farmworkers - and other mammals. The dramatically improved safety profile of neonics is why they are often used in the home on flea collars for dogs and cats.
There is no serious debate that the alternatives to neonics - primarily older chemistries such as pyrethroids, which have to be sprayed - are much worse for pollinators and for the environment in general. This includes many of the “natural” insecticides used in organic farming - and they use many of them - such as azadirachtin, commonly known as neem oil, which the European Commission found was fatal to bees at concentrations “50 times lower than the recommended dose that farmers use.” In fact, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation lists more than 20 pesticides commonly used by organic farmers that are of medium to high toxicity to bees.
In 2013, however, in response to activist claims that neonics were causing a dramatic decline in honeybee populations and might possibly lead to their extinction - claims repeated uncritically in thousands of news stories around the world - the European Commission passed a “temporary ban”.
This took place when I was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I was attending the EU Council meetings on the subject. My scientific advisers had good evidence from field trials that neonics were not harmful to bee populations. I led the opposition to the EU ban and called for more evidence from field trials across Europe.
A number of other EU ministers did the same but most other environment ministers buckled to a massive lobbying campaign which was not based on evidence. The size of the campaign led them to believe they were obliged to take action.
I asked the EU to gather real evidence over a number of seasons and to allow the continued use of neonics under the existing strict conditions. Instead, the EU Commission panicked and brought in a temporary ban.
The National Farmers’ Union did not support calls for a ban. It said: “While such calls are popular, in the absence of good evidence such bans would not deliver any measurable benefits for bee health.
Shortly after the EU passed its temporary ban, it was revealed that neither the journalists who had repeated the activist hype about a “beepocalyse” nor the EU Commission itself had done basic homework. Honeybee populations in Europe, and indeed around the world, have been increasing - in some cases dramatically increasing - the entire time neonics have been on the market. Again, these facts are not seriously disputed today. If you want to check for yourself, you can find the statistics on bee populations quite easily on the FAO website, here.
Nor did the EU Commission honestly follow through on its pledge to base their ultimate decision on neonics on the best available science. The permanent ban, which went into effect in 2018, was based on a specially designed regulatory framework, called the Bee Guidance Document (BGD), which had never been used before and has never been used in the regulation of any pesticide since. This is because no insecticide in existence could pass its requirements, which were especially designed to invalidate any of the “tier three” field studies - the critical studies that examine a pesticide’s effect in realistic conditions - that had ever had been conducted or possibly could be conducted. The BGD did this by setting conditions on field studies that were literally impossible to meet, such as requiring a field area of some 448 square kilometers, five times the size of Paris, or showing no more than 7 percent variation in hive populations when the natural variation of those populations is 2 or 3 times as large.
The overwhelming majority of these studies had determined that neonics could in fact be used safely without harm to bee populations, but the BGD automatically excluded all this data from consideration. They then banned neonics because they didn’t have the field data -the very data they’d contrived to arbitrarily exclude - that demonstrated neonics were safe to bees in the field.
The same journalists who uncritically repeated the beepocalypse hysteria continue to mis-represent this fact, but the Commission has admitted this, stating that the ban ‘was at no time based on a direct link on bee mortality’. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2015-003083-ASW_EN.html?redirect
Other countries outside the EU have not taken this step because scientific evidence still does not support the changing claims which are made. The EU did not base its decision on sound science and this is a crucially important point which has implications far beyond these products.
While we don’t have the same kind of data on wild bee species, the evidence that neonics are causing them harm is just as tenuous and is seriously undercut by the well-known fact that those wild bee species that pollinate agricultural crops - and would therefore come into most direct contact with neonics - are thriving.
Claiming a link between bee hive collapse and neonics creates a potent narrative, but it is important that we let science, not political campaigns or popular perceptions, assess whether neonics really decrease pollinator populations rather than produce localised pesticide effects. Science is ongoing and is simultaneously assessing the effect of a range of diseases and pathogens on bees and other pollinators.
The ban on neonics has unfortunately meant a return to older pesticides such as pyrethroids which cause proven negative effects on the environment. Pyrethroids must be sprayed onto crops which means that they are used in much higher quantities. The ban has also caused a reduction in plantings and has devastated oilseed rape production.
Much of the UK and EU supply of rapeseed oil now comes from countries using neonics, countries reporting no evidence of harm to their pollinator populations or wider ecology. The UK has become a net importer of rapeseed products after previously being a net exporter.
As a result of the ban, an increase in insect pests has led to crop losses in fields across Britain and Europe. According to United Oilseeds, the harvested area of rapeseed in the UK this year will be 40% of what it was in 2012.
Viv Marsh, a horticulturalist working on biodiversity conservation in North Shropshire who also founded the Praise Bee Charity, has described the neonics ban as a ‘retrograde step’ which would lead to the use of older, ‘savage’ pyrethroid sprays. Bee health, he points out, is determined by a number of factors, including “the loss of many of the wild flower meadows in this country that had to be ploughed up for us to survive the last world war. Plus pest and disease strike on the honey bee more recently.”
He added: “If neonics are banned, then we will have to revert back to the much more savage pyrethroid sprays, which have been proven to do so much more harm to bees-and all other insects.”
A long-term study into the effects of pesticides on aquaculture, published in the journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, investigated the long-term effects on aquatic invertebrates of commonly-used insecticides: two pyrethroids (permethrin and lambda-cyhalothrin) and an organophosphate (chlorpyrifos). It was discovered that these pesticides can impact aquatic species over multiple weeks, even when chemicals are no longer detectable in water nor monitored by regulators.
In 2019, Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s lead on bee health and pollinators, said: “Recent studies make an important addition to our understanding of what is actually happening to insect numbers over time, and highlight that the issues around pesticide use are not binary – they are complex and it is quite possible for use of a pesticide, even one as controversial as a neonicotinoid, to have beneficial impacts on beneficial insects like bees.
“Sadly the studies also exemplify the difficulty that quality research faces in being picked up and reported fairly if it does not fit the story the mainstream press prefers to tell.”
UK Government support for the restriction on neonicotinoids in 2018 was given on the understanding that the Government could consider approval in special circumstances according to law, where its use is judged on necessity and strictly limited.
I can provide the following additional details about the recent approval and special circumstances for the use neonicotinoids on sugar beet:
• Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop, therefore bees do not forage on sugar beets.
• Government scientists took the additional step of asking farmers to treat flowering weeds near their crop with recommended herbicides to further reduce pollinator exposure to neonics.
• The special circumstances in this instance are connected with the potential danger posed to the 2021 sugar beet crop from beet yellows virus.