Skip to main content

Neonicotinoids and other Pesticides

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2024

[Gordon Henderson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the environmental impact of neonicotinoids and other pesticides.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank all Members who have joined this debate. I also thank everyone who has signed the many petitions linked to the debate, including a significant number of my constituents in Chester. It is clear that the concern about this issue is overwhelming. Before I start, I should say that I will do my best to refrain from any bee puns.

On 18 January this year, the Government approved emergency authorisation for use of the highly damaging neonicotinoid on sugar beet for the fourth year in a row, going against the advice of their own advisers and the concerns of campaigners and environmentalists across the country. That decision is yet again ill-judged and wrong. It directly contradicts our national and international obligations, such as the commitment to halt species loss by 2030 and the obligation under the global biodiversity framework to reduce the overall risk from pesticides by at least half.

Those decisions are being made against expert advice, waved through without a parliamentary vote and made on the basis that they are temporary and in the case of an emergency. Have we really had an emergency for four years in a row or is this just the Government’s way of nodding through harmful practice on a yearly basis?

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. I am sorry for intervening early, but I have to go to a meeting and wanted to make my point.

I am a beekeeper myself. I was recently speaking to the Somerset Beekeepers’ Association, which called the Government’s ongoing war on insects “unfathomable”. Does the hon. Member agree that we must have rigorous testing of chemicals before they are approved for agricultural use, and that the Government should introduce a clear qualitative target for significantly reducing the overall use of pesticides in agriculture?

I agree with the hon. Lady and I thank her for the intervention.

Last night, I noted a BBC article entitled “Bee-harming neonicotinoid use ‘makes a mockery’ of ban”. There is no doubt that there is an issue with virus yellows, but we are facing a biodiversity emergency and lifting the ban is not the way forward. We have got to find another way. I support the calls made in the article by Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, for the Government to urgently deliver their long-awaited strategy on sustainable pesticide use.

Bees and other pollinators have for many years been facing an increasingly difficult task in the face of changing agricultural practice. That is a challenge in itself for our farming community, but it can also lead to a decrease in available forage and produce monoculture deserts for much of the year, making insect existence increasingly challenging. It is well known that neonicotinoid pesticides can be very harmful to a wide range of insects and invertebrates, including our beloved bees. They affect the nervous systems of bees and other insects, resulting in paralysis and eventually death. In fact, author and academic Professor Dave Goulson has warned that just one teaspoon of this type of chemical is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees. That is equivalent to four lorry loads.

Environmentalists, campaigners and local beekeepers have been in touch with me ahead of this debate to share their views and concerns on this topic, including the Wildlife Trust, our own Chester zoo, and Angharad, a local beekeeper who kindly alerted me to a report by the expert committee on pesticides that states:

“There is new evidence regarding the risk from neonicotinoids globally which adds to the weight of evidence of adverse impact on honeybee behaviour and demonstrated negative impacts on bee colonies”.

Bees play a crucial role in our food supply chain by pollinating crops, and their decline could have cascading effects on biodiversity and agricultural productivity. We should be protecting them, not putting them in harm’s way. Insect populations have suffered drastic declines in the UK. Recent evidence suggests that we have lost 50% or more of our insects since 1970 and that 41% of the Earth’s remaining five million insect species are threatened with extinction. Of course, other human factors and habitat loss are also to blame, but so is the widespread use of neonics. Given that a third of our food crops are pollinated by insects, we have a lot to lose.

The Government’s emergency authorisation allows the seed coating of sugar beet crops with neonics—a method of application that results in only 5% of the pesticide reaching the crop. The rest accumulates in the soil where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants visited by bees, or it can leech into watercourses and affect the wildlife that lives there. If we thought sewage in our waterways was not enough, we are also adding harmful chemicals into the mix. Harmful neonics have been found in more than 10% of English rivers despite a widespread ban in 2018. In more than half the rivers where neonics were detected, they were at levels that pose a significant risk to wildlife. I back our farmers and am concerned that sugar beet farmers are experiencing a difficult time. However, lifting the ban is not the way forward. In fact, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ own economic analysis found that there was little impact of the beet yellows virus on sugar beet yield in untreated crops.

Pollinators, which are obviously the subject of the debate, are particularly important, but what about human health? Norfolk County Council is the first council in the country to ban glyphosate. That is an important move forward, and perhaps the hon. Lady will give her thoughts on that. More importantly, should we not be trying to find naturally produced, sustainable products that are not harmful to pollinators or human health and to repeat what has happened with Norfolk County Council and glyphosate? We should be rolling that out and putting all our scientific efforts into trying to find those products for the future.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, that underlines the importance of the strategy coming forward on the use of all pesticides. I thank him for his intervention.

We must find a science-led way forward that not only protects our bees and safeguards our future biodiversity and human health, but helps the farming sector by supporting initiatives that promote alternative, bee-friendly pesticides and sustainable farming methods. Despite the emergency authorisation being granted in 2022 and 2023, the proportion of farmers who decided against using neonics was 29% and 40% respectively. That shows that an increasing number of growers are trying to farm in a way that does not harm nature or rivers, yet there appears to be no support for those growers from the industry or Government.

The Government have instead focused on short-term solutions that will undermine the long-term sustainability of the farming sector and disadvantage those growers trying to do the best for nature. Emergency pesticide authorisation risks not only the floodgates opening for other harmful pesticide use, but slowing down crucial research on the alternatives. Without those alternatives, climate change will only lead to increased demand for neonics. The use of pesticides in the agricultural industry has become commonplace for many years, and there are good cases to support the use of targeted pesticides to help secure successful food production. However, some of those treatments are not being used in a targeted way and are affecting beneficial pollinators, as well as pest species.

Scientists increasingly believe that there is no safe level of pesticides for humans to be exposed to. There is growing evidence that pesticides become more harmful when they are combined together—something known as the cocktail effect. I spoke to an arable farmer last summer, who told me he would never allow his children to eat bread made with his wheat. When I challenged him, he simply said, “Well, I know what’s gone into it, don’t I?” Does the hon. Member agree that the Government need to regulate, incentivise and support farmers to lead the transition away from pesticide use?

I agree. The hon. Lady makes a very compelling case, which I hope the Minister is listening to.

The widespread use of the pesticides is not seeking to target known pest species but, as the hon. Lady has mentioned, being used as a blanket catch-all that preloads the crops with deadly chemicals that can transfer into the pollen and nectar, and into the food chain. We must look for positive alternatives, and not settle for short-term harmful solutions.

Will the Minister comment on the assessment the Government have made on the impact of their emergency authorisation of neonics for the last four years? Will he explain why the Government have ignored expert advice, which puts our vital pollinators under threat? Will he commit to any future decisions on this issue being put to a parliamentary vote? Finally, will he tell us all when the long-awaited strategy will be published?

I thank all Members who have joined today’s debate. I know we are all busy bees with packed diaries, and I hope the rest of the debate will create a real buzz about this issue—sorry, I really couldn’t help myself. On a serious note, nature has a critical role to play in both integrated pest management solutions and tackling climate change. It cannot do that if it is under attack from harmful pesticides such as neonicotinoids.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) on setting the scene so very well on a subject that should really interest us all. If it does not, then there are questions to asked—that is the reason we are all here. It is a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who has a deep love of farming. It is an especial pleasure to see the Minister, who is always here whenever debates such as this are to be answered. I know that he, like me and others in this room today, understands the importance of the subject.

I declare an interest—not because I am a beekeeper, but because my neighbours down the road, Chris and Valentine Hodges, are. A couple of years ago, I let them put some of their beehives on to my land, because I wanted to see the natural environment that I live in enhanced. It quite clearly has been. They have what is called a black bee species, which is almost extinct; they are responsible for ensuring that it comes back. This is not just on my farm, but in the constituency across the whole of the Ards peninsula, up into North Down and as far over as Strangford lough. By the way, the honey is absolutely gorgeous. Every morning before I leave my house, I have two spoonfuls on my brown toast. Fibre is very important when getting to a certain age, so the honey gives me that wee bit of flavour and taste, and I thank the Lord for it. It is really special.

I am ever mindful of the responsibility that we hold to be good stewards of our environment, which I know is an obligation that our farmers honour in every sense. All the farmers I know want to do that; I know the Minister does that, and other people here do the very same. Many farmers see themselves not as landowners but as caretakers of the land for future generations, as the hon. Member for City of Chester said clearly in her introductory speech. The responsibility for producing food that is safe is of great importance. For that reason, many old-school farmers—I am probably one of them—have encouraged their children to attend agriculture college to get a basis of generational knowledge, while working hand in hand with modern techniques, and to be taught how to get the most out of the land and diversify where necessary. Our agriculture colleges are vital to the future food security of this nation, and that should also be noted today.

The complexity of grant applications and red tape has been somewhat reduced, but it is still a matter of concern to the farming community. The need for the Ulster Farmers’ Union—the sister organisation of the National Farmers Union in England—is very clear. The two work together and provide some of the best insurance rates possible; maybe I am a wee bit biased, because all my insurance is with the Ulster Farmers’ Union. That is why I looked to see what the NFU’s view was on this issue, knowing that it has hands-on knowledge and science at its fingertips.

I can understand that there are situations in which the use of these pesticides is important. Most recently, the Government approved an application from NFU Sugar and British Sugar for the emergency use of the seed treatment on sugar beet seed in 2024. That was a vital application, and we need to look at it and recognise why that decision was made and its implications. The authorisation was granted on the condition that the product will be used only if the threshold for virus lessons is reached. Michael Sly, the chair of the NFU Sugar board, said:

“The British sugar beet crop, which safeguards more than 9,500 jobs, continues to be threatened by Virus Yellows disease.”

That terrible disease can do all sorts of damage to the countryside and to bees in particular. He continued:

“In recent years the disease has caused crop losses of up to 80%.”

We cannot ignore that; those are the facts, figures and statistics. He went on to say:

“I am relieved that this has been recognised by Defra”—

particularly the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today—

“in granting the derogation which will be invaluable if we see a return of severe pest pressure.

An independent, scientific threshold is used to forecast the severity of pest pressure on the British sugar beet crop and any seed treatment will only be used if this threshold is met.”

So there are conditions; this is not a wild abandonment of the process, which is very much controlled. DEFRA and British Sugar have it well under control. Mr Sly added:

“the industry will again deliver a comprehensive stewardship programme to ensure safe and responsible use of the treatment if the threshold is met.

Led by the British Beet Research Organisation, the homegrown sugar industry is working hard to find viable, long-term solutions to this disease.”

This process is about the long-term vision and how we find a cure or something that ensures that this disease does no more damage.

I am the first person to say that we need to look at insecticides and make them safer. However, I represent a constituency that produces a large amount of sugar beet, and this derogation is for a limited period and for a non-flowering plant in its first year, so pollinators will not be at risk from it. The fact that we are spraying the seeds of this plant actually mitigates a huge amount of risk. I think the public do not fully appreciate that absolutely key point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very salient and helpful intervention, which put the facts on the record. He explains why and how these things have been done, the controls that are necessary and why these things are necessary, and I am sure nobody here will have any concerns about the way they have been done, how long they will last or their importance. As I said, Mr Sly concluded by saying that the homegrown sugar industry is working hard to find a viable long-term solution to the disease, but it is imperative that we recognise the necessity for that.

To conclude, that application shows the level of thought that must go into having an application approved by British Sugar. The use of these harsh chemicals is not the first solution; it is a final solution. For that reason, I believe that they should remain available, but they should always—always—be closely monitored. We owe a duty to our environment, but also to our food security. The balance between them is so delicate, but it can be struck; I believe in my heart that if there is a will, there is a way. I look to the Minister, as I always do, to ensure that we in this House are doing the best we can to put the garden back in the shape that it should be in.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) for introducing the debate in the way she did. There are strong supporters of bees and pollinators in all parties, and she set out clearly that there is genuine concern among the people we represent about the continued use of emergency authorisations of bee-killing pesticides for the sugar beet crop.

Having called similar debates in previous years, I am hugely passionate about this issue. I bloody love bees, and I am desperately concerned that the public’s concern about bees is not being reflected in Government policy. It is not being reflected in the way the Government follow expert advice or in the way they are treating this House on an issue they know matters to nearly every single Member of Parliament.

On the point about greater awareness, does the hon. Member agree that such debates are essential in not only the beekeeping fraternity but the wider community, who sometimes do not understand the importance of beekeeping and what it contributes to wider society? They are helpful in broadening knowledge among the 95% of the public who take beekeeping as a small, almost irrelevant pastime and do not see the importance.

Beekeeping is a pastime that is enjoyed in rural and urban areas, and it is something that matters. It is not just about local produce; it helps to support an ecosystem that we all depend on—from our vibrant, beautiful gardens through to the food we eat. What matters to bees should matter to us all, because it affects every single one of us.

Bees, along with other pollinators, play a crucial role in our ecosystems. The decline in bee populations affects not only our country’s biodiversity but our food security. It is paramount that we as politicians take the issue more seriously. One third of the UK’s bee population has disappeared in the last decade, and the UK has already lost 13 out of our 35 native bee species. That should make us think about what we are doing to safeguard those remaining species and ecosystems, and how we are not only protecting habitats from being lost, but increasing available habitats for insects, for pollinators and for nature.

I have listened intently over many years—from when I sat on the Front Bench, where my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) is sitting today, to where I sit now—to Ministers talking about the importance of nature-based recovery and of encouraging more of our farmers to take nature-based solutions to heart. I welcome that change in language, and we have seen an important policy shift in recent years, but if we are to make it real and deliver that nature-based solution, emergency authorisations for bee-killing pesticides simply cannot sit alongside it; they are incongruous with it. Continuing the use of bee-killing pesticides amounts to environmental vandalism.

I back British farmers. One of my two little sisters is a farmer, and the other works in agricultural products. This issue matters. I represent an urban constituency in the south-west of England, but I know just how important farming is to the south-west and to our rural communities, because without farmers, there is no food. It is really important that we understand that, so I back farmers’ concerns.

I understand that there is a real issue around the viability of crops affected by the diseases that the emergency authorisations are seeking to address, but I want to look at those authorisations. When we left the European Union, the Government said they would follow the evidence and not make decisions without it—DEFRA said that on a number of occasions, even though a prominent former Environment Secretary might not have been very kind about experts. However, the Government are not following the evidence here. Will the Minister explain why they are not following the expert group’s advice? When do they expect to be back on track with that? Do they have alternative science that gives a different perspective from that of the expert group? And what guidelines have they given the experts about commenting on the authorisations?

It is important to recognise that this is the fourth year in a row where neonicotinoids have been allowed for emergency use, but if we look at the words in the emergency use authorisation, I doubt there has been an emergency for four years in a row. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester: four years in a row is not emergency use; it is a pattern that has allowed a type of behaviour to continue. If it was an emergency, there would have been one year of emergency use, and activity to correct that would have taken place.

In the first of the debates I called a number of years ago, one of the Minister’s predecessors told me that these were temporary emergency authorisations that would last only three years at most. We are now in the fourth year of temporary emergency authorisations, and I am not certain from anything I have seen from the Government that there will not be a fifth, sixth and seventh emergency authorisation if they are re-elected. I do not get the sense that there is a destination that the Minister is driving us towards, and what I would like to see is a clear destination.

I am grateful to the hon. Member because he is making an important point. It may be helpful to the House to understand that a further check and balance on the authorisation for emergency use is whether the threshold is met for the product to be deployed. Only where that threshold is met is the product deployed in the open market. In 2021, that threshold was not met, so the product was not deployed in the open market—that was not felt necessary. The science says that where there is an issue and a challenge, we will use the product, and where there is not, as in 2021, that product will not be allowed.

I agree with the Minister about the thresholds, but they do not detract from the fact that the Government have effectively established a baseline that they will authorise emergency use of neonicotinoids every year, notwithstanding that emergency use is subject to a threshold being met.

I do not see how we can be in the fourth year of an emergency without some urgent and emergency action being taken to address it. It would be kinder and more honest in this debate to say that the Government now have a standing policy to authorise the use of bee-killing pesticides for sugar beet crops, but a threshold has to be met. For me, that would seem a more honest appraisal because, after four years, it is a reality that this is authorised every year, and I do not think it should be.

I am sympathetic to a lot of the points the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he not think that authorisation every year is a fairly reasonable position to get to in the absence of an alternative to neonics? One important thing that has not been discussed in this debate is that there is currently no viable alternative to neonics when the threshold has been met. Until we are in that position, authorisation may well be the reasonable course of action.

One advantage, or disadvantage, of having spoken in and called debates on the use of neonics is that I have listened to a number of Ministers cycle through the arguments for why authorisation is justified each and every year. In one earlier debate, the argument was put that we need to use the emergency authorisation because the new crop species are not yet online. In another, a Minister said that we need to use the emergency authorisation because the insurance scheme that would support sugar beet growers where there is disease in the crops is not yet online.

Those debates were many years ago, and we need to see honesty and transparency in this debate. I think the hon. Gentleman is saying that it would be reasonable to argue for using these pesticides if those things happen. What I am saying to the Minister is that we now have a standing policy that bee-killing pesticides are used on an annual basis, subject to a threshold. Let us be honest that it is a standing policy, and then we can debate whether the Government’s policy is right and what the alternatives are. At the moment, the annual reauthorisation is against the expert advice of the Government’s own scientific body, which does not support the position that we should be allowing these pesticides to be used on an annual basis.

I will give the hon. Gentleman a medical analogy—I am a practising doctor, as he may be aware. I may prefer certain medications over others and recognise that a medication I prescribe may have unpleasant side effects. Although I may wish that there was an alternative to that medication in development, at this moment it may be the only option available to me in my prescription repertoire to make the patient better. That is a similar situation to the one we are facing with the use of neonics. The issue here is what is being done to accelerate the finding of effective alternatives to neonics. That is the question we need to ask here, because we do not want to put farmers in a situation where the only viable treatment is completely banned.

I am grateful for that intervention. I am not a doctor, so I will not try to butcher a health analogy that might be shot down. I think the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is saying that we need to hear from the Minister about authorising neonicotinoids against expert advice, which the Government say they are following but are not, with a different excuse every year. I would like to see the destination we are going to. We have a standing policy now from DEFRA that that is authorised every year. It does not necessarily mean from what the Minister said in his intervention that they will be used every year, but they will be authorised every year. That is the standing policy.

The reality is that for the majority of years in this Parliament the Government have authorised neonicotinoids to be used in emergency cases. I do not believe we can have four years’ worth of emergencies. If a patient came to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich four years in a row, I suspect he would challenge the use of the word “emergency” in that context. That is why I want this made clear. What is the Government’s destination? What is their plan? What are their alternatives for the use of neonicotinoids?

I do not want to limit what I say to farmers’ use of neonicotinoids. As this debate is about the broader use of neonicotinoids and we have established that neonics kill bees, that bees are essential for our ecosystem and that there is cross-party concern about the Government’s use of bee-killing pesticides, we have established that neonics are the problem. How they are deployed into our ecosystems is also a problem. We have looked at the neonic deployment in agriculture and sugar beets, but I want to talk about neonics in two other areas.

One is neonics’ use in imported food. For the countries where we have now signed trade deals that use neonics as standard in their agricultural production, how are we safeguarding our ecosystem and food supply against importing neonics in food, on coatings of food and in other agricultural products? We know that neonics, when exposed to the natural environment, get everywhere. We have seen studies recently, as cited in The Guardian only a month ago, that refer to neonics now appearing, according to a Swiss study, in children—in every child that was tested in the study. So we know that neonics are present.

We also know that neonics are present in our wildlife and in our rivers, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, and in our wider ecosystems. So we need to look at how we are getting neonics into those things and where neonics are imported in food.

Also, I have a concern that neonics are being used in flea treatment far too frequently. Dog and cat owners, in an attempt to look after their pets and make the right decision, are using neonicotinoids. Fipronil and imidacloprid are two different types of neonics used in flea treatment. We are advised to use it on the back of our pet’s neck and we are not supposed to touch the pet until it is dry. In practice, we know that the effects of those neonics and their ability to spread last for the duration of that flea treatment. We are seeing more neonics going into our rivers and watercourses as a result of flea treatments.

At the moment there is not enough focus on that area. If we have established that neonics are a concern for bees, we also need to understand the direction of travel. I do not come with a prescription for the Minister to cut and paste into policy; I am saying there is an issue here. It is important that we have an honest debate with members of the public who, I believe, are trying to do the right thing by their pets. Many of them would be utterly horrified and aghast if they found out that in trying to do the right thing to support their pets and prevent diseases they are harming our wider ecosystem.

There is a debate worth having, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich suggested, on a destination and how we address the problem. The authorisation for emergency use of bee-killing pesticides on sugar beet crops affects a certain part of the country primarily. It does not affect every watercourse or river catchment area, yet we are finding neonics in a wider variety of areas when bee-killing pesticides are used, so it is incumbent on us all to make a strong case against bee-killing pesticides in agriculture and also look at bee-killing pesticides used elsewhere.

Professor Dave Goulson, whom my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned in her remarks and whom I met at a bee roundtable that I hosted a year or so ago to talk about bee-killing pesticides, warns that flea treatment harms fish and invertebrates that live in our waterways. Those are chemicals that were banned for agricultural use in the UK several years ago, and which remain banned for that use, but are allowed to be used in pet treatment—that is a question mark we have to look at. I have already spoken about the human health impacts; they are concerning and also need to be properly understood.

It is incumbent on all of us who campaign on bees, and who love bees, to make sure that our answers to this issue are clear on where we need to see action. The emergency authorisations for bee-killing pesticides in agriculture should end; they should not be allowed. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge will restate the position he has held in every one of the debates on this issue that I have spoken in over the course of this Parliament—that we should stop.

However, it is clear that there are also other challenges that we need to look at and investigate. Could the Minister explain where else we can look, and what science his Department is commissioning about the wider use of neonicotinoids and their pollution of our wider ecosystem? I do not think that any one of us present has the answer, but if we can agree on the problem, that will at least get us moving towards starting to address it.

I thank the campaigners—not only the wildlife trusts—who have been working on this and who are championing insects. Apart from bees, insects get a pretty bad rap—there are not many charities holding out for the daddy-long-legs, but without insects there is a really significant impact on our ecosystem. Insects should be championed much more. They are not just scary creepy-crawlies; they are absolutely essential for a vibrant ecosystem and the nature-based recovery that we all want to see.

In particular I want to thank Anabel Kindersley of Neal’s Yard Remedies for her tireless campaigning on this matter. No debate could happen without her continued pressure on MPs and her encouragement of us to keep pushing further and further. Bees and nature matter; if we are not having that constantly said, there is a risk that the wider use of neonics becomes something that is just accepted, and that their authorisation becomes an annual occurrence that passes without a parliamentary vote.

In previous debates I have spoken about the importance of a parliamentary vote. If something damages our environment, as we know that these pesticides do, and that is against Government advice, and against the principles of evidence-based policymaking and “following the science” that the Minister’s Department has set out, there should be an extra step before it is authorised.

The reason we do not have a debate and a vote on authorising bee-killing pesticides in agriculture is very simple—the Government would lose that vote each and every time. The Opposition MPs would vote against it and their own MPs would vote against it, and that is why we do not have a vote on it. That in itself should tell us a story about whether the use of those pesticides is acceptable behaviour.

In this latest authorisation, those chemicals are being used against the Government’s expert advice, and that is ill-judged and wrong. There has been no parliamentary vote on it, nor do I think the Minister wants one—it will not happen. I do not think we can have an emergency four years in a row without bigger action. That is why, whether we like it or not, bees are an election issue, and matter to the voters who we all represent. They are in decline across the country, despite the incredible efforts of local councils planting wild flower meadows and bee corridors, and of local people encouraging the use of hives. Pollenize is an amazing community interest company in Plymouth that puts amazingly-painted beehives all over our city and collects the honey, supporting nature-based recoveries. However, despite their work we know that that recovery is not working in the way we want it to.

This is not just about the emergency authorisation of bee-killing pesticides; it is about something else as well. This involves habitat loss and the wider use of neonics in our economy, and we must look at all of those. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, but I also look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, so that we can be absolutely clear that those bee-killing pesticides would not be authorised if there were a change in Government. I would encourage my hon. Friend’s position on this matter to go in that direction.

If that were the case, there would be a greater focus on the issue that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich mentioned—finding better ways of supporting our farmers who are affected by this issue. Not all farmers are affected, but some are, and they deserve support. If this were a genuine emergency it would be all hands on deck to try and solve this matter, but four years later it is still not all hands on deck. Four years later we are still here, having emergency authorisations passed without a parliamentary vote, and bees are still dying. That is why this needs to change; we need a change of approach, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister and the shadow Minister what that approach should be.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) for securing the debate. Her introduction was full and thorough, and I will echo many of her points. I am also grateful for the other speakers. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has left us. I have long wondered what he was on to keep him going, and now we know the answer: two spoonfuls of honey on a piece of toast in the morning. We will all have to try that.

I was particularly taken with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). His passion for bees is legendary and he raised a series of important points, many of which I will touch on. I thought that the exchange between him and the Minister on the threshold issue was illuminating. I fear that, because of the weather this year, we are likely to cross that threshold again, so in reality we are talking about a derogation that will be applied this year. He made a point about flea treatment for pets, and I think that issue will rise and rise in salience. It is clearly a significant problem.

The key point is that we are here again—for the fourth time. It is almost an annual debate—the annual neonicotinoids debate. It really is a case of déjà vu. We are also still waiting for the national action plan on pesticides. I have had this brief for four and a half years now, and Josie Cohen and others from the Pesticide Action Network have been pressing me on this point all the way through. I have lost count of the number of changes in terminology so, if the Minister cannot give us a date, perhaps he could tell us whether it is soon, imminent or in due course, or maybe, just possibly, after the election—who knows?

There is a serious point here: why on earth has it taken so long to deal with these issues, which have already been raised? Why can’t we find a way forward? How many times is it that the Government have ridden roughshod over expert opinion by allowing yet another emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB? We have already heard the answer; it is four times. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said, that hardly constitutes an emergency because, once again, the Government have ignored the advice of Government scientific advisers on the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. Back in September, it said that it was unable to support an authorisation for Cruiser SB because

“the potential adverse effects to honeybees and other pollinators…outweighs any likely benefits.”

It is right. We simply cannot afford to allow further devastation to the number of bees in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has already quoted the statistics: one third of the UK bee population has disappeared in the last decade. Since 1900, 13 of 35 native bee species have been lost. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of all pollinators, which has fallen by over 50% between 1985 and 2005.

This is a fundamental threat to the survival of a much-loved part of our natural world—a threat that we should challenge not only for its own sake, but because the economic consequences are severe. Quite frankly, we would struggle to survive without bees. They are crucial to our physical health and the health of the wider environment. In the UK alone, approximately 75% of our crop species require pollination and around 70 crops depend on, or benefit from, bee pollination. Though there are of course other methods of pollination, wild bees can pollinate on a much bigger and more efficient scale than the alternatives.

The economic benefits are estimated to be worth approximately £690 million to the UK economy in terms of the value of the crops they pollinate. From a global perspective, bees pollinate 70 out of the top 100 foods we eat and an astonishing one third of every mouthful of food we consume. They are also essential for the crops used for animal feed. Without them, it would be harder to produce much of our meat, egg and dairy products. I am told that in China they have had to resort to pollinating fruit trees by hand because pollinators have been nearly wiped out by pesticide use. That should serve as a warning to us. Estimates suggest that it would cost UK farmers an incredible £1.8 billion a year to manually pollinate their crops. Without bees, it would not be long before our ecosystem was in severe trouble.

Not only are bees in more danger every year, but they are more important every year. According to the UN, the volume of agricultural production dependent on pollinators has increased globally by 300% in the past 50 years. The UN also found that greater pollinator density results in better crop yields, so it is also good for farmers.

These pesticides are not only toxic for bees; at certain levels, they are toxic to aquatic life and build up in river systems. Research by the Rivers Trust and Wildlife and Countryside Link found neonicotinoids in more than one in 10 English river sites tested by the Environment Agency. The levels of neonicotinoids in many of our rivers was above the environmental quality standard deemed safe for aquatic wildlife. The rivers most affected by the pesticides were found in the east of England, south-east England and west midlands, including the Ivel, Waveney, Nene, Ouse and Tame. The evidence is pretty clear. It is no surprise that other countries are heeding the advice of their experts on banning these pesticides.

A European High Court ruling last year found that no derogation concerning seeds treated with neonicotinoids was justified, including in exceptional circumstances invoked to protect sugar beet. The French Government announced on 24 January 2023 that they had decided not to pursue a further exemption for neonicotinoid use on sugar beet, in the light of the court ruling, effectively putting an end to the emergency use in Europe of three banned substances—imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. We are going in the opposite direction from scientific and legal consensus in comparable countries.

I recognise the problems that growers face in combating diseases transmitted by aphids. I am an east of England Member of Parliament and I absolutely understand the importance of the sugar beet industry to our region. Virus yellows, in particular, causes significant yield losses. The National Farmers Union, as has been said, reports that for some that can be up to 50%, and I thank the NFU for its background briefing. The most complex and serious example is that spread by the peach potato aphid, and it is hard to control. In 2020, the sector lost 40% of the national sugar beet crop, bringing down the five-year average yield by 25%.

I was grateful to the NFU and British Sugar a few months ago; I met their representatives and some from the British Beet Research Organisation in Rougham near Bury St Edmunds. We stood in a field and looked very closely at the impact of the disease on a variety of sugar beet plants. That was an informative and chastening experience, because one could see the damage being done to those plants. I fully appreciate the challenge that farmers face. I also think that most farmers know that the use of this chemical will not be a long-term solution. In 2023, 40% of sugar beet farmers in England chose not to use them, despite the authorisation allowing their use. That is up from 29% in 2022.

To go back to earlier discussions, many have been able to successfully deploy integrated pest management systems. There was an interesting piece in Farmers Weekly a few weeks ago detailing the recommendations being made by BBRO, including a move to more tolerant varieties. That is part of the issue—it is an economic one. The problem is that, in moving to some of those more tolerant varieties, there is a yield penalty, a financial calculation. What that tells us is that there are choices, and that it can be done. The question is whether we choose to do so.

My view is that the future will be different, and I think that is why so many people are exasperated and genuinely shocked by the Government’s continuing stance. The reaction to the Government’s latest decision to authorise the use of Cruiser SB has been damning. The Wildlife Trusts called it a

“deathblow for wildlife, a backwards step in evidence-based decision making and a betrayal of farmers who are producing food sustainably.”

The chief executive officer of Wildlife and Countryside Link said the decision

“flies in the face of ecological sense”.

It is not just environmental and wildlife groups who are outraged. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has already referenced the campaigning work of Anabel Kindersley, chief executive of Neal’s Yard Remedies, who helped to establish the “Save the Bees” campaign with a number of businesses that have repeatedly called for an end to the use of bee-killing pesticides. That is partly because they see the threat to bees as a threat to their businesses. In the modern world, that is the challenge: not just to produce food, but to do so in an environmentally sustainable, nature-positive way. I acknowledge that that is hard, and we may need new tools to help us, but change has to come, and it should start now with an end to the use of these toxic chemicals in our fields.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a farmer, although we do not and have never produced sugar beet at home. I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this interesting debate. We agree on more than we disagree on, including the necessity to find a way forward, to which I wholly subscribe.

Decisions to allow or not to allow the use of pesticides are based on careful scientific assessment of the risks. The aim is to achieve a high level of protection for people, animals and the environment while improving agricultural production. The decision to grant the emergency authorisation of Cruiser SB was not taken lightly and was based on robust assessment of the environmental and economic risks and benefits.

The emergency authorisation was issued with a strict threshold for use. The seed treatment was authorised to be used if—and only if—a virus incidence rate of 65% or more over the summer months was forecast by the independent model developed by Rothamsted Research. That forecast was made on Friday 1 March.

The use of Cruiser SB on sugar beet in England will be allowed this year as yellows virus incidence thresholds, as predicted by the Rothamsted model, has been met. Emerging sugar beet seedlings and young plants are vulnerable to feeding by aphids, which transmit several viruses collectively known as virus yellows. These viruses lead to reduced beet size, lower sugar content and higher impurities.

We withdrew authorisation for the use of pesticide products containing three neonicotinoids on outdoor crops at the end of 2018. Since then, sugar beet growers have been adjusting to the new conditions. In 2020, there was severe damage, with 24% of the national crop being lost, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), recognised. Many individual growers were severely affected and less sugar beet was planted in 2021, because some growers were reluctant to take the economic risk. In recent years, the virus threat has been relatively low.

This year, the threshold has been set at a predicted virus incidence of 65% or above. That is a slight increase from last year’s threshold. The change reflects our improving understanding of the fit between the model used to predict virus incidence and the real-world outcomes. The aim of the threshold is to ensure that Cruiser is used only if damage is predicted to sugar beet production.

Members will be aware of the strict conditions of use that have also been set as a requirement of the emergency authorisation. As the threshold has been met and neonicotinoid-treated seeds will be planted, those conditions are in place to mitigate risks to the environment, including risks to pollinators. Neonicotinoids take time to break down in the environment, and during that period, may be taken up by flowering plants. The conditions for use of Cruiser SB therefore allow only a limited range of crops, none of which flowers before harvest, to be planted in the same field within 32 months of a treated sugar beet crop.

Growers must also comply with a stewardship scheme. As part of that scheme, treated fields are monitored to determine the levels of neonicotinoids in the environment. Full details of the conditions of use have been published online.

To be clear, we remain committed to the existing restrictions on neonicotinoids. Emergency authorisations are approved only where strict legal requirements are met. There must be special circumstances. Use must be limited and controlled, and the authorisation must appear necessary because of a danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means.

I wonder whether we could turn the question round. What would need to happen for the Minister not to grant a derogation? I cannot really see circumstances in which this situation is likely to change.

There are circumstances where it is likely to change. There are advancements in other products that are coming forward in the marketplace. The gene editing Act offers opportunities for research institutes to find alternative genetic possibilities to help improve resistance within the sugar beet plants to some of these pests and diseases. In those circumstances, as those new technologies come forward, of course they will be assessed on their merits. We are very keen to support the development of alternatives to try to help sugar beet producers and the environment at the same time.

As I said in my speech, it is not that tolerant varieties or alternatives are not already available; it is that there is an economic cost. I do not really see how that is different from the situation the Minister has described. They will not necessarily provide the same level of yield, even with the gene editing. There will still be a cost.

Let me give way to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and then I will take both points at the same time.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said. The Minister set out the reasons for Cruiser SB’s authorisation. Could he be equally clear about the plan to address it? What measures are being taken, how are those measures being assessed and how can we as interested parliamentarians scrutinise progress against those measures, so that that we are not here next year having the same debate with the same possible alternatives, but not yet having them in action? Can he set that out in a reply to Members in this debate, or as a written ministerial statement, so that we can see what plan his Department is pursuing?

The plan that we are pursuing is working with the sector and the scientific community to try and bring those advances forward as soon as possible. It is not possible for me to stand here today and predict what those advances may be in the next 12 months or five years. Clearly, we have to work with the sector. British Sugar is putting an awful lot of work into trying to improve sugar beet growing in terms of its practice and the products available.

To return to the point I was making, the aim of the threshold is to ensure that Cruise will be used only if there is predicted to be a danger to the sugar beet crop. Those criteria have been met at the moment. There must, of course, be special circumstances. Use must be limited and controlled, and the authorisation must appear necessary because the danger cannot be contained by any other reasonable means. That emergency authorisation allows a single use of neonicotinoid on a single crop under very strict conditions to mitigate the risk to those pollinators.

My decision was informed by the advice of DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. I also considered economic issues informed by analysis from DEFRA economists. The scientific advice concluded that with the proposed conditions of use there were no concerns for human health. In respect of environmental risk, potential risks to bees were considered in particular detail.

HSE concluded that a number of potential risks to bees, including acute risks to bees from all routes of exposure, were not of concern for this use of thiamethoxam under the proposed conditions of use. Further advice from the chief scientific adviser was that remaining risks, including those from following crops, were likely to be acceptably low given the conditions of the use proposed.

In taking the decision, we have wanted to be as transparent as possible and to give access to the information considered during the decision-making process. We have published documents outlining the key elements involved in making the decision, which can be accessed on That includes the HSE emergency registration report, where Members can access the full HSE risk assessment.

Looking to the future, we do not wish to see the temporary use of neonicotinoids continue longer than is strictly required. The development of alternative sustainable approaches to protect sugar beet crops from viruses is paramount. That includes, as I was saying, the development of resistant plant varieties, measures to improve crop hygiene and husbandry, and alternative pesticides. British Sugar, plant breeders and the British Beet Research Organisation are undertaking a programme of work to develop such alternatives. The Government are closely monitoring progress and in January provided £660,000 towards a precision breeding project to develop resistance to virus yellows in sugar beet, helping to expedite the transition away from neonics.

In addition, the Government recently held a roundtable with members of the British sugar industry and environmental organisations to discuss the industry’s progress on implementing alternatives. I have urged British Sugar and others in the sector to drive forward the plans so that their outputs can be implemented in the field at pace. This afternoon’s discussion gives us an opportunity to recognise the need to develop alternative, sustainable approaches to tackling these plant diseases.

The Government are fully committed to the agricultural transition to repurpose the land-based subsidies we inherited from the EU, which did little for the environment or farmers. That is why we are delivering on a new and ambitious system that rewards farmers and land managers for their role as environmental stewards, which starts with the sustainable farming incentive. Last year saw the roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive, which includes the introduction of paid integrated pest management actions. Specific actions to support more sustainable pesticide use include: paying farmers to carry out assessments and produce integrated pest management plans; establishing and maintaining flower-rich grass margins, blocks or in-field strips; and payments for not using insecticides or for planting companion crops. Those actions are already supporting farmers to minimise the use of pesticides and incentivising the uptake of alternative pest control methods. Encouraging lower-risk and alternative approaches to pest management will be a prominent feature of the national action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides, which will be published shortly.

As I have outlined, the decision to allow the limited and controlled use of new neonicotinoid-based pesticides on a single crop was not taken lightly and is based on the most robust scientific assessment. We will continue to work hard to support our farmers, and to protect and restore our vital pollinator populations.

I do not quite buy the Minister’s argument. Will he reflect momentarily on the other uses of neonicotinoids in our wider economy, including in flea treatments? I recognise that he may not have the answers in the folder in front of him, but this might be an area that he could ask his officials to investigate. We are at the start of exploring the issue, and I would be grateful if he could set out the path that he thinks would be useful to take in order to explore the matter further.

I am more than happy to continue to explore that issue. It is interesting that the hon. Member should raise it at this moment in time because we are doing some work in that regard, and there is a statutory instrument coming on veterinary medicines and their deployment. He will be aware that some flea treatments require a veterinary prescription and some can be done under the jurisdiction of an expert—I hesitate to use that word; for example, it might be in a pet shop, where there is some expertise. Others treatments can simply be bought of the internet, so there are different levels of treatment. The Department needs to be careful that such products are of benefit to pets, but also of their impact on the environment. We will consider that robustly as we move forward. I thank him for highlighting that matter and thank hon. Members for their contributions.

I thank the Minister, the shadow Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—and other hon. Members for joining the debate. I am not sure that I am particularly reassured. I have heard that, as of Friday, growers may be spraying this particular chemical on their crops.

On a point of clarification, the product is not sprayed. There is no aerial spraying of neonicotinoids at any point, and I would not want to inadvertently mislead the House.

Crops are being treated with this particular chemical, which I find disconcerting. As I set out in my speech, concerns are shared by constituents up and down the country that instead of the chemical being used in an emergency situation, its use is becoming routine.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for broadening the debate into the use of the chemical in pet treatments, and I thank the Minister for his comments about how the Government are considering addressing the issue. An SI may not be the most appropriate way to do that, given the need for the wider concerns about neonicotinoids to be aired, as he said, as transparently as possible; an SI is not the route that most of my constituents would want to see followed. I go back to the point I made earlier about the use of parliamentary time to consider and debate these issues.

Hopefully, this time next year we will not be debating this issue. Hopefully, that will not be necessary, as alternative means of controlling the specific disease referenced today will have been found, but I hope that everyone here understands how worried people are about the future health of bee communities.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the environmental impact of neonicotinoids and other pesticides.

Sitting suspended.