Deciding to harm nature – an opinion piece by Buglife, CCF member

19th January 2021

This opinion piece is written Andrew Whitehouse and Matt Shardlow of Buglife, based on a longer piece published by Buglife. Buglife is a member organisation of Cambridge Conservation Forum, a partner of Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

The UK Government’s recent announcement that they would be allowing farmers to once again use environmentally destructive neonicotinoid seed treatments on sugar beet has caused concerns over the UK’s commitment to the environment post-Brexit, and the rather opaque nature of pesticide regulation.

Neonicotinoid pesticides have been shown to poison bees and other pollinating insects, however the harm doesn’t stop there – there are concerns of impacts on other wildlife – for example a risk that birds and mammals will be poisoned if they eat treated seeds. Neonicotinoids have been shown to contaminate wildflowers growing in field margins and hedgerows, where they can poison pollinators visiting the flowers. Where they enter rivers and streams, neonicotinoids can cause severe pollution and have devastating impacts on freshwater invertebrates. When last used on sugar beet these chemicals were found in rivers at levels exceeding those that trigger acute and chronic harm in aquatic life.

Image: Sugar beet 

After years of campaigning by Buglife and others, in 2018 the EU (with the support of the UK Government) banned the use of most neonicotinoids on outdoor crops – to protect bees and other pollinating insects. However, in the two years since that ban was agreed, EU countries have issued at least 67 different “emergency authorisations” for outdoor use of these chemicals. The number and regularity of these authorisations calls into question the commitment of these countries to uphold the ban, and protect our fragile environment.

While these pesticides damage the environment, they do protect sugar beet from aphid transmitted viruses. Problems with the 2020 harvest, when neonicotinoids weren’t used, were caused by ineffective aphid control at a crucial point in the spring growth of beet. There is enough science in the public domain to assure us that this is a problem needing a solution.

We can, of course, sympathise with farmers and the sugar processing industry whose yields are being affected. Unfortunately, many now want to fix the problem quickly using a chemical they trust but which scientists know damages the environment.

In 2018 a derogation application to use neonicotinoids in the UK was turned down. The Expert Committee on Pesticides advised the minister in 2018 that, if use of this insecticide on sugar beet was approved, there would be unacceptable environmental impacts. The application from 2018 is secret, so it is not possible to see if it contained attempts to reduce environmental damage, but in the 2020 application there are proposals for environmental mitigation that are now apparently endorsed by Defra. Given that the evidence of environmental harm has grown since 2018, it is important that the Government publish the NFU application and all advice to the Government on its more recent decision.

The determination of an application to use neonicotinoids (or other pesticides) is a decision with a significant environmental impact. However, our secretive pesticide management processes do not appear fit for purpose. The Aarhus Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, should guarantee the public access to environmental decisions, the process should be open, transparent, and engaging, with genuinely independent advice and an appeal process. So, how has this decision on neonicotinoids complied with the Convention? Where was the opportunity for independent advice? Where was the opportunity to explore what other options were available, and could any have had lower environmental impacts? Where are the measures needed to protect freshwater wildlife?

Neonicotinoids continue to be yesterday’s technology, a promising approach, now known to cause profound environmental harm. This is a sad decision that will cause environmental harm to British pollinating insects and rivers. It is also a decision that has been taken in an opaque way. We can only hope that the public outcry over allowing the use of banned pesticides will draw attention to how these decisions are made, and will lead to change – to ensure that future decisions do not side-line the public and their environmental protection.

Buglife was the first environmental NGO in Europe to call for a ban in neonicotinoid pesticides and continues to explain the issues and work towards long-term solutions to the damage that pesticides are causing the natural world.