Following up from this December blog Steph Morren, senior policy officer, writes again about neonicotinoid pesticide use in England. 

On Friday 14th January, we heard that, against scientific advice, the UK Government approved the application by British Sugar to use thiamethoxam on sugar beet during 2022. This blog explores why the RSPB and others do not agree with the decision, and what the implications are for future decisions.

This is the second year in a row that an approval has been granted in favour of British Sugar. In both years, the government’s own expert advisors from the Health and Safely Executive (HSE) and the Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP), have advised against the derogation. This year, they said the conditions for allowing an emergency derogation have not been met. They also raised concerns about the impact on bees and aquatic ecosystems. Last year, due to a cold winter, the aphid threshold was not met, and therefore the pesticide wasn’t used but there are no guarantees this will happen this year too.

Impact on wildlife

The neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam was banned for all outdoor use across the UK (and EU) in 2018 because of its harmful effects on bees and other wildlife. Neonicotinoids (NNs) are the largest group of systemic insecticides used around the world to protect a wide variety of crops from agricultural pests. A recent study showed that even one exposure of a neonicotinoid insecticide had significant impacts on their ability to produce offspring in future years. 

The approval granted this year does include tighter conditions than the previous year, in particular, the virus threshold has been raised – meaning more sugar beet will need to be impacted to trigger the use. However, the threats to bees and to waterways have not been adequately addressed and the main stipulation put in place to protect bees is to prevent farmers planting flowering crops in the field for 22 months after the use of thiamethoxam, and to use herbicides to kill off flowering “weeds” in the margins. In other words, the mitigation for negative impact is to destroy or prevent bee-friendly habitat from being there in the first place.

The UK Government also recognises the “unacceptable” risk to birds and says: “risks to birds from consuming treated seeds were not demonstrated to be acceptable, but the consumption of pelleted seeds is considered an unlikely route of exposure”.

However, a study from 2019 shows that birds definitely eat treated seeds, so this is not a reassuring statement.

Taking into account independent scientific advice

We now know for sure that the UK Government has chosen to approve this application, despite expert advice suggesting not to. As we wrote about in this previous blog, as the UK develops its own pesticide approvals regime outside of the EU, the advice given by the HSE and ECP is even more important than it was before. The UK Government choosing to ignore this advice raises serious questions about how independent scientific advice will be taken into account in all future pesticide approval decisions.

Farmers need support to protect nature

The vast majority of farmers do not want to be using toxic and costly pesticides. However, at the moment, many feel they don’t have a choice. The UK Government has a unique opportunity in a post-Brexit UK to support farmers to reduce their reliance on chemicals via new environmental land management schemes. Funding research and trials into non chemical alternatives, independent advice and peer to peer learning are all vital to get us off this treadmill of chemicals.

75% of the land in the UK is farmed, and if we stand any chance of meeting our legally binding targets in the Environment Act to halt species decline, we need to support farmers to do things differently. This decision is at odds with that ambition.

In summary, we have been disappointed once again with the decision, and now we wait apprehensively to see if the threshold is met and thiamethoxam is used. The RSPB will keep urging the UK Government to prioritise nature and find different ways of doing things.

Please do contact your MP if you would like to tell them your views on this decision, and the need to focus on nature’s recovery.

Further reading:

How neonicotinoid affect wildlife

DEFRA decision statement: