Steph Morren, RSPB senior policy officer, writes today's blog on why the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on sugar beet crops in England shouldn’t be approved.

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. And yet, once again British Sugar has applied to use it on sugar beet in England in 2022.

Defra have yet to make a decision this year, but expert scientific advice has been published which states that the case for approving thiamethoxam has not been adequately made. This blog explores why it is vital that Government prioritises support for farmers to reduce their reliance on harmful pesticides, and what it means for the future of the UK’s pesticide regime if scientific advice on wildlife impacts is ignored. 

In early 2021, Defra approved British Sugar’s application to use thiamethoxam on sugar beet, despite the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advising the Government against it on environmental grounds. In the end, it was not used because the winter was so cold that the aphids (the target for the pesticide as they carry beet yellows virus) were not at a high enough threshold.

Last year’s decision was criticised by many organisations including the RSPB, and once again we are potentially facing the same outcome a year later – with no guarantee the weather will prevent its use again. Even minor traces of these toxic chemicals play havoc with bees’ ability to forage and navigate, with catastrophic consequences for the survival of their colony. A recent study showed that even one exposure of a neonicotinoid insecticide had significant impacts on their ability to produce offspring in future years. Neonicotinoids (NNs) are the largest group of systemic insecticides used around the world to protect a wide variety of crops from agricultural pests.

Taking into account independent, scientific advice

The Government seeks advice from the HSE and the Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) for any emergency derogation, and both have said that the conditions for allowing an emergency derogation have not been met. The ECP have also said “on the basis of the evidence presented to ECP, the Committee agreed that it is unable to support an emergency authorisation.”

Now the UK is developing its own pesticide approvals process outside of the EU, the advice given by the HSE and ECP will be even more important than it was before. If the Government is choosing to ignore this advice, it raises serious questions about how independent scientific advice will be taken into account in all future pesticide approval decisions.

Nature needs us to do things differently

We also have a brand new Environment Act, which has legally binding targets to reverse species decline by 2030. Approving a chemical with such proven harmful consequences to pollinators is at odds with these targets, and alternatives must be found.

The Government has the unique chance to properly support farmers to reduce their reliance on harmful chemicals via the Sustainable Farming Incentive in England. But it also needs to commit to independent advice and research into non-chemical alternatives, because turning to banned chemicals is not a sustainable solution. Neonicotinoids passed the approvals process before anyone knew about the impact on bee populations, and so just developing new chemical after new chemical is also not a suitable long-term approach, given the nature crisis we face.

We expect a decision on this application in the next few days or weeks and, if approved, all eyes will be on the winter weather to see if the aphid threshold is met. We urge the Government to heed the advice they have received, follow the science, and support sugar beet farmers to manage their businesses without resorting to neonicotinoids.

We will publish information on the decision as soon as we hear it, but in the meantime please do contact your MP if you would like to tell them your views on what the outcome of the application should be.

Further reading on neonicotinoid and how they affect wildlife: