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UK Government Authorises Use of Bee-Killing Pesticide by Sugar Beet Farmers

By Tyler, Global Vegans


Bees are responsible for pollinating essential crops, supporting the growth of wildflowers and protecting delicate ecosystems - and are widely considered to be the most important species on Earth.

Yet this hasn’t stopped the UK government from approving the use of neonicotinoid-containing pesticides by sugar beet farmers. The pesticide is known to threaten bee populations by leaving these incredible pollinators vulnerable to disease, restricting their flying and cognitive abilities, and reducing their foraging range.

Despite this, Environment Secretary George Eustice has agreed to allow sugar beet farmers to use the poisonous neonicotinoid thiamethoxam insecticide for up to 120 days. During this period, sugar beet farmers will be allowed to use the insecticide on non-flowering crops.

This comes after an outbreak of Virus Yellows disease, which caused sugar beet production to drop on farms across Europe last year.

In a bid to protect their crops against the virus in 2021, sugar beet farmers applied to George Eustice to temporarily lift the ban on neonicotinoids. The application was submitted by British Sugar and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which claims that some farmers experienced yield losses of up to 80% in 2020 due to Virus Yellows.

In the Government’s official declaration, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) states that insecticides containing neonicotinoid thiamethoxam must only be used when there are no reasonable alternatives.

Defra also writes that use of the chemicals must be “limited and controlled”, but falls short on revealing what the consequences of flouting this rule will be. There are also no definitive restrictions on what constitutes excessive neonicotinoid usage.

The EU first restricted the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops in 2013 and extended the ban to other crops - including wheat and sugar beet - in 2017. Following the ban, the European Food Safety Agency concluded that the insecticides were dangerous to both wild bees and honeybees.

The UK government initially resisted the restrictions, but begrudgingly adjusted its position after facing criticism from environmental organisations and the general public. Unsurprising, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has never supported the ban.

At the time, then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry, is greater than previously understood.”

By allowing these pesticides to be used just two years after they were banned, the UK government has shown where its priorities lie: with farmer profit.

For many, this won’t come as a surprise; Defra’s authorisation of neonicotinoids is just the latest example of its inability to make long-lasting, tangible improvements for pressing environmental and animal welfare issues.

Like many organisations committed to animal and insect welfare, we’re extremely disappointed by the Government’s U-turn on this issue. Allowing even temporary usage of poisonous insecticides on non-flowering crops could be detrimental to bees, which are already under threat from the agricultural industry and its use of harmful pesticides.

Pesticide spreading is one of the largest contributors to declining pollinator populations, but intensive honey farming, destruction of natural habitats, air pollution and food shortages caused by climate change are also responsible for killing bee colonies. A 2018 article from the Independent stated that a third of the UK’s bee population had disappeared within a decade, showing the rapid rate at which pollinators are being wiped out.

Frustratingly, the UK isn’t alone in its decision to allow emergency usage of the pesticide. In total, 10 countries have backed a temporary lift in the EU-wide ban, including Spain, Denmark and Belgium.

The UK’s decision to ignore the wealth of evidence linking neonicotinoids to rapidly decreasing pollinator populations has been criticised heavily by the public, insect charities and environmental organisations.

Matt Shardlow of Buglife called the action “environmentally regressive” and Joan Edwards of The Wildlife Trusts said: “The Government should be focussing their efforts on regenerative farming approaches, supporting farmers to produce nutritional food which is good for people and has a positive effect on wildlife.”

In a statement opposing Defra’s decision, The Wildlife Trusts criticises the Government for not tackling the root cause of the virus, and instead allowing farmers to protect a crop with “zero nutritive value” by spreading highly toxic chemicals.

A petition pressuring Defra to reverse its decision has gained momentum in the UK, but as of yet the Government has given no indication that it will consider the petition and its objectives.

At Global Vegans, we hope Defra will evaluate the scientific evidence surrounding neonicotinoids, consider the wellbeing of bees and other pollinators and think twice about the use of harmful pesticides across UK farms.

After all, we can live without sugar - but we can’t live without bees.


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