A cross-party committee of MPs has called on the UK government to join other countries in the European Union in taking urgent action to protect bee populations from the harmful effects of neonicotinoid pesticides.
The Environment Audit Committee (EAC) of MPs said the government should place a moratorium on farmers’ use of three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to declining pollinator populations from 1 January 2014, and ban their use by private individuals with immediate effect.
The three pesticides are midacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.
Two-thirds of wild insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies, had suffered population declines in the UK, and “managed” honeybees were experiencing unusually high mortality rates, the EAC said in its report, ‘Pollinators and Pesticides’, published today.
Laboratory studies had raised “serious concerns” about the potential effect of neonicotinoids on bee populations, whose role as crop pollinators was vital to the UK’s agriculture sector and the wider economy, the EAC said. By contrast, neonicotinoids, which were widely used on crops such as oilseed rape, cereals, sugar beet and maize in the UK, were “not fundamental to the general economic or agricultural viability of UK farming”, it claimed.
“We believe that the weight of scientific evidence now warrants precautionary action, so we are calling for a moratorium on pesticides linked to bee decline to be introduced by 1 January next year” - Joan Walley MP
“We believe that the weight of scientific evidence now warrants precautionary action, so we are calling for a moratorium on pesticides linked to bee decline to be introduced by 1 January next year,” said Joan Walley MP.
“This allows farmers to use treated seeds that have already been purchased for this growing season and gives Defra time to implement EU legislation on the sustainable use of pesticides.”
In March, the European Commission tried to introduce a two-year ban on the three neonicotinoids highlighted by the EAC following a risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but failed to gain a majority because the UK, among others, refused to support the plan.
Unlike other EU countries, such as Italy, Germany and Slovenia, which had suspended the use of neonicotinoids in certain circumstances through national action plans on bee health, the UK had failed to take domestic action, the EAC said. Furthermore, garden retailers, such as B&Q, Wickes and Homebase, had already voluntarily withdrawn plant protection products containing neonicotinoids marketed for use by the general public.
Calling for an immediate ban on neonicotinoid products for non-professional use, Walley said: “The government should follow the UK’s leading garden retailers in recognising that action needs to be taken to save our bees. Banning the sale of neonicotinoids for domestic use would at least create an urban safe haven for bees.”
Defra has always maintained the government does not oppose the EC’s plans but believes more scientific evidence is needed to support action on neonicotinoids, especially from field trials rather than lab-based research. On 27 March, it published a review of current evidence on neonicotinoids and their effect on bees, including a field study on bumblebees it had commissioned from the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), and concluded “effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances” and “the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low”.
However, the EAC said the Fera bumblebee study was flawed and “therefore not a compelling basis for inaction”.
The Crop Protection Association (CPA), which represents pesticide manufacturers, said the EAC’s report contained no new evidence, and its call for action against neonicotinoids was unjustified.
“Calls for a suspension of neonicotinoid insecticides are a disproportionate reaction to a complex problem” - Nick von Westenholz, CPA
“Calls for a suspension of neonicotinoid insecticides are a disproportionate reaction to a complex problem and there is no evidence that such a move will lead to any meaningful improvement in bee health,” said CPA chief executive Nick von Westenholz.
“The reasons that there are declines in some pollinator populations are complicated and not well understood and include factors such as habitat loss, viruses and parasites. Similarly the call to withdraw the approval of neonicotinoids in gardens and amenity areas is unjustified and not supported by any evidence of harm from their proper use in these areas.”
Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association, welcomed the report. “Surely Defra Secretary of State Owen Patterson must now realise that he can’t be right and all these experts wrong? It is time he stood up for the bees not the chemical companies,” she said.
“We also welcome the recognition within the report that there needs to be a reform of the entire system of approving pesticides in the EU and that there needs to be greater transparency regarding safety data from companies producing pesticides.”
Make data available
The EAC urged pesticides manufacturers to make publicly available research and risk assessments carried out in relation to pesticide approvals, and said it was unconvinced by industry claims such information had to be confidential for commercial reasons.
“The lack of transparency in relation to trials and studies conducted by pesticide manufacturers has resulted in inequality between the pesticide industry on one side and academics and the public on the other,” it said.
Defra itself had said it would be a “good idea” for manufacturers to publish their research, and the department should therefore work with the industry and academics “to establish which, if any, genuinely commercially sensitive details should be redacted to make that possible”, the EAC added.