Gove backs further ban on neonicotinoid pesticides

Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
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Tougher restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides are justified by the growing weight of scientific evidence they are harmful to bees and other pollinators, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove said today.

Setting out the UK’s position, the Secretary of State said the UK supports further restrictions on the use of these pesticides, the fate of which is being considered by the European Commission.

Mr Gove has said that unless new scientific evidence comes to light, the Government will retain anyincreased restrictions set by the European Commission post-Brexit.

His announcement follows advice from the UK government’s advisory body on pesticides that scientific evidence now suggests the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids – particularly to our bees and pollinators – are greater than previously understood.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that research estimates the value of the UK’s 1,500 species of pollinators to crops is between £400m and £680m per year due to their positive effect on food productivity.

Mr Gove said: “I have set out our vision for a Green Brexit in which environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced.

“I’ve always been clear I will be led by the science on this matter. 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. I believe this justifies further restrictions on their use. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.

“I recognise the impact further restrictions will have on farmers and I am keen to work with them to explore alternative approaches both now and as we design a new agricultural policy outside the European Union.”

Since December 2013, the EU has banned the use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam – on a number of crops attractive to bees, such as oilseed rape.

The European Commission is currently proposing further restrictions so that the same three neonicotinoids can only be used on plants in glasshouses.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

The department’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Boyd, added: “The important question is whether neonicotinoid use results in harmful effects on populations of bees and other pollinators as a whole.

“Recent field-based experiments have suggested these effects could exist. In combination with the observation of widespread and increasing use of these chemicals, the available evidence justifies taking further steps to restrict the use of neonicotinoids.”

Should the proposal for a further ban on the chemicals be adopted, the UK would have the right to consider emergency authorisations and Defra has said that it would only do so in “exceptional circumstances where there is a real need for the products and the risk to bees and other pollinators is sufficiently low”.

Earlier this year, applications by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) for emergency authorisations to use two neonicotinoids to protect oilseed rape crops planted in England were rejected by Defra.

Responding to the stance announced by Mr Gove today, an NFU spokesman said: “We deeply regret the decision the Government has taken on this issue as we don’t believe the evidence justifies this abrupt change in policy. We will continue to speak to the Government about how the impact of the decision can best be mitigated so that farmers can maintain sustainable and productive cropping systems.”

The NFU also said that farmers are acutely aware that bees play a crucial role in food production and that they rely on bees to pollinate crops, having planted around 10,000 football pitches of flower habitat across the country to support a healthy bee population.

Environmental campaigners praised Mr Gove’s stance.

Friends of the Earth’s chief executive Craig Bennett said: “Michael Gove is to be congratulated for listening to the experts. The scientific evidence for a complete ban on bee-harming pesticides is now overwhelming.

“Tougher restrictions on neonicotinoids are essential for our precious bees and the wider environment.

“To their credit farmers across the UK are already finding innovative ways to successfully grow crops without neonicotinoids, even ahead of the ban being extended.

“But lessons also need to be learned – we now need to move away from chemical intensive farming and instead boost support for less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests.

“The UK must follow through on today’s announcement by backing current European Commission proposals to get these pesticides completely out of our fields.”