Environmental campaigners have called for government to support farmers in growing alternative crops to sugar beet rather than allow the use of a banned chemical that is poisonous to bees to deal with a pest outbreak.
The National Farmers Union applied to Westminster to allow emergency use of a neonicotinoid seed dressing to deal with an outbreak of Virus Yellows disease, which it said was having an “unprecedented” impact on Britain’s sugar beet. Some farmers were facing losses of up to 80% of their crops.
NFU said the authorisation was “desperately needed” and that they were relieved the government had lifted the ban temporarily. Michael Sly, chair of the NFU’s sugar board, said it was a crucial move if Britain is to maintain viable sugar beet farm businesses. But he added that the sector was continuing to work “as quickly as possible” to find long-term alternative solutions to the disease.
Farmers will use the neonicotinoid as a dressing, which will coat the seed so that when it goes into the ground the chemical it is drawn up into the plant as it grows, thereby providing protection from the pests throughout the whole body of the plant. However that means the substance will also be found in the nectar and pollen of plants treated, and so will be picked up by pollinating insects, including bees.
NFU argued that farmers have agreed not to plant any flowering crops in fields treated with the chemical for two years afterwards. It also argues that sugar beet is an example of low food miles as most farms are within 30 miles of processing sites, and that if these crops fail, the UK will have to import sugar beet from the 13 other EU countries that have already approved similar temporary lifting of the ban.
However, charities such as the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have all raised alarm at the announcement and questioned the logic of the decision when the government is pouring billions into climate action, and there is an obesity and diabetes epidemic.
Wildlife Trusts said recent research suggests the UK has already lost at least half of its insect population since 1970, and that 41% of the earth's remaining five million insect species are threatened with extinction.
The NFU said the science around bee health used to argue for the ban on neonicotinoids “remains unclear”. But bee and pollinators expert Prof Dave Goulson, at Sussex University, contradicts this view, arguing that the chemical is the equivalent of novichok agents for pollinators.
Goulson, an author of numerous books on bees, pollinators and planet-friendly growing, said that a teaspoon is enough to give a lethal dose to one and a quarter billion honey bees, or 125 tonnes of bees. He said research has shown that just 5% of the dressing is used by the plant, the rest remains in the soil and leaches into waterways affecting plant life beyond the crop-sown areas such as wildflowers.
He said: “Sugar is really bad for us and the government is allowing farmers to use a chemical that we know will harm the environment for something that makes us ill. It may seem a bit dramatic but we have a global obesity and diabetic epidemic.
“Perhaps we could extend the sugar tax to other products that are full of sugar. And the land that isn’t being used for sugar beet, perhaps we grow some healthy fruit and veg – because 70% of fresh produce is imported. So instead of growing something bad for us, let’s grow something that’s good for us.”
Goulson added: “It seems like a really backwards step and doesn’t seem to be looking at the big picture that actually growing a bit less sugar is a good thing.
“Obviously you have got to feel for the individual farmer if they lose a lot of the crop and maybe there should be some compensation mechanism but resorting to a chemical that the whole of Europe decided was so poisonous we should ban them, so that we can grow a bit more sugar, just seems stupid to me.”
There are several petitions being run to overturn the decision to lift the ban, hosted by the government’s official petition website, Greenpeace and Wildlife Trusts – as well as further historic petitions around protecting bees and pollinators from neonicotinoids.