Government didn't follow expert advice on bee-harming pesticide

The government gave temporary approval to a ‘banned’ bee-harming pesticide earlier this year, going against the recommendations of its own expert advisors, according to documents seen by Friends of the Earth.
  Published:  25 Mar 2021    |      4 minute read

Official papers, obtained under Freedom of Information rules by the environmental organisation, show that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advised the government not to grant ‘emergency authorisation’ for sugar beet farmers to use the neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, in January 2021. The HSE raised several concerns about its use, including the impact on bees.

The Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) also raised significant concerns about the environmental implications associated with the pesticide, which it suggested couldn’t be mitigated against, although it did not make a recommendation to refuse, or approve, the application.

Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor also made no recommendation to refuse or approve the application. He suggested that a longer period between the treated sugar beet and the planting of flowering crops would reduce the risk to bees. However, he also said that “Environmental damage of neonicotinoid use is clear and the evidence is increasing. Keeping neonicotinoid use to an absolute minimum will continue to be critical to support population recovery of bees and other species”.

In deciding to grant approval for emergency use, Defra set out a series of mitigation measures which would need to be acted upon, including delaying the planting of flowering crops in the same field and using herbicides to remove flowering weeds from the crop - but Friends of the Earth says these do not sufficiently address serious concerns about the environmental impacts of neonicotinoid use outlined by its expert advisors.

Fortunately, the pesticide was never actually used by sugar beet farmers, because the threat from aphids, which can spread the virus yellow infection, fell below the threshold that would have triggered its use.

However, the government has indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet for another two years.

Urge the government to make a clear plan to reduce pesticides and ensure the countryside is a safer place for wildlife.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Sandra Bell said:

“For a government that boasts of protecting the environment, the decision to greenlight the use of this pesticide and ignore warnings about risks to bees and other species is completely at odds with a supposed green agenda.

“Unfortunately, this may only be a short reprieve for pollinators. Despite strong scientific evidence about the risks involved, the government has already indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet in future years.

“We will oppose any attempt to bring bee harming pesticides back into our fields. The government and industry must redouble their efforts to find alternative and effective pest and disease control for farmers – focussing on agroecological methods that work with nature, not against it.”

Friends of the Earth is also concerned about the apparent secrecy surrounding this decision, and is calling for greater transparency in the future so that decision making can be properly scrutinised by independent scientists and stakeholders.

Friends of the Earth lawyer Katie de Kauwe said:

“The level of secrecy surrounding these decisions continues to be a huge cause for concern. Lengthy delays in obtaining this information only strengthen our calls for greater transparency. After submitting an information request in January this year, it has taken HSE double the normal amount of time to respond to our request – and they still haven’t disclosed everything we’ve asked for. Unfortunately, we feel that HSE has not met its legal obligation to disclose environmental information, and this is not the first time it’s happened. We are therefore making a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner, owing to these repeated delays by HSE.”

Friends of the Earth will campaign to stop banned neonicotinoids being brought into use in the future, alongside campaigning for ambitious targets to reduce the use and impacts of pesticides, and much better support to help farmers adopt nature-friendly methods of farming – so that they don’t need to resort to seeking emergency authorisations.

Notes:

  1. Neonicotinoid pesticides are banned in the European Union and the UK for use on all outdoor crops, because of the high risk to bees and other pollinators.
  2. Friends of the Earth made two separate information requests under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) to HSE and to Defra on 20 January 2021. On 17 February 2021, HSE and Defra both extended their deadline for a response until 17 March 2021 and 18 March 2021 respectively. Under regulation 5 of the EIRs, public authorities are required to provide a response to an information request as soon as possible and in any event within 20 working days. They are permitted to extend this deadline if they reasonably believe that the complexity and volume of the information requested means that it is impracticable to respond sooner (regulation 7).
  3. Defra's response to our EIR request includes the advice from Defra's Chief Scientific Advisor who notes that decisions on Emergency Authorisations should be taken in the context of the mounting scientific evidence of harm to bees and other species, and the existing background levels of neonicotinoids in the environment noting that any additional use would add to those levels. However the CSA suggests that extending the gap between treated sugar beet and flowering crops could reduce the risk to bees.
  4. Correspondence received by the CSA in response to questions about the application, from a redacted source, states that “in our opinion it is not possible to conclude whether the further decline over another year would be sufficient to not have any adverse effects on bees. We do not have robust enough toxicity data to conclude accurately what a safe level would be”.
  5. The HSE concluded that the emergency “does not demonstrate a safe use in the scientific risk assessment” and “On that basis the HSE recommendation is to refuse the use”. HSE advised that the risk to bees from crops grown in the same field following the sugar beet was not acceptable, both in terms of pollen and nectar from flowering crops and guttation (drinking sap) from maize crops. For flowering crops HSE warned that there could be impacts on bees after 22 months or longer. HSE also warned that surface water could fail PNEC levels (Predecited No-Effect Concentration) and that there was some risk to birds from eating treated seed, although this was an unlikely route of exposure.
  6. The ECP agreed with the HSE’s concerns about following crops, but commenting on the HSE’s assessment, it pointed out that new published evidence about neonicotinoids had not been considered in the HSE assessment, and that it “indicates that many neonicotinoid chemicals, including thiamethoxam, are mobile in the environment and can pose potentially significant risks to a range of wildlife that includes, but is not restricted to, pollinators.” The ECP added that “It was not possible to identify how the key risk associated with the use of this product could be further mitigated”
  7. Although similar decisions to allow temporary use of banned neonicotinoids on sugar beet have been made under EU law by Member States these are now subject to scrutiny by independent scientists on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which will report later this year. This level of independent scrutiny does not now apply in the UK.