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Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 30 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will implement the European Commission decision to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to protect bees.

My Lords, the European Commission implementing regulation requires the new restrictions to be in place by 1 December 2013. We will introduce the restrictions from that date.

Will all these chemicals be monitored? Will the Minister also condemn those commercial interests which are introducing foreign bees with parasites that are damaging our own species?

On the latter point, the noble Lord is right that parasites—particularly the varroa mite, but there are a number of others—are something that we really must watch out for. He asked whether the full range of neonicotinoids is subject to the restrictions. He is right to ask that. There are a couple that are not. I am not sure I can pronounce them but I will try: acetamiprid and thiacloprid—

I am grateful. These are not covered by the restrictions as they are of relatively low acute toxicity to bees. The restrictions apply to the remaining three neonicotinoids—which I hope noble Lords will permit me not to pronounce—and are intended to remove those uses that might cause bees to be exposed to the compounds. Therefore, uses permitted include spray applications made to crops after they have flowered.

I declare an interest as food grower; my living therefore depends on pollination. Does the Minister accept that, while it is very important to protect bees, it is equally important to protect all insect pollinators? Therefore we have to make sure that their habitat is conserved, which is a much wider issue than just protecting honey bees.

My Lords, yes. We have had this discussion in your Lordships’ House before. I was pleased to announce recently that we are developing a national pollinator strategy precisely because of the concerns my noble friend raised.

My Lords, may I recommend, as an alternative to pesticides, the method used by the winner of this year’s St Andrews Prize? Around the crop growing areas, the trees were equipped with beehives because the elephants, which were doing the major damage in that area, were terrified of bees. This not only produced safe areas for crops but meant that there was honey money as well.

I am really very grateful to the noble Baroness. Farmers have not been complaining to me recently about the numbers of elephants but I shall keep my ears open.

My Lords, reports this weekend that bees and other pollinators have bred well this year are most welcome. More concerning are reports that the lead government scientist on the effect of neonicotinoids on bees is joining Syngenta, one of the leading manufacturers of the insecticide. She previously worked on a Syngenta-funded project on bees and pesticides for Fera. Given the widespread concerns among the public about bee health, what assurances can the Minister give us that this closeness between policymakers and commercial interests benefits taxpayers more than shareholders?

My Lords, of course, all public servants go through the proper procedures before they take up a role outside government after they leave government.

Noble Lords may have seen a recent programme on ITV about bees, in which the Food Minister David Heath and Matt Shardlow of Buglife gave their views on neonicotinoids. Mr Heath said that there are other chemicals that are even more damaging to bees. Is my noble friend able to tell us what those other chemicals are and what action the Government are taking to ensure that they are not used? While ensuring that our Government implement the suspension of neonicotinoids as soon as possible, will the noble Lord encourage Ministers and officials in his department and scientists who advise them on this issue to take time to watch “Horizon” on BBC2 at 9 pm this Friday, when the presenter Bill Turnbull, himself an experienced beekeeper, investigates “What’s Killing Our Bees?”?

My Lords, as regards my noble friend’s second question, I am very grateful to him for resolving the thorny problem of how I should spend my Friday evening. As regards his first question, I am not absolutely sure of the chemicals to which my honourable friend referred. However, in the absence of neonicotinoids, we expect farmers to use the available products, such as pyrethroids and organophosphates, for their particular pest problems. Without something effective, the consequence for farmers could be a reduction in crop yields, potentially substantial in scope. Despite not being as effective as neonics, these other products are legal and have passed the safety tests set in legislation.

My Lords, the scientific evidence supporting this is sketchy at best. It appears that some useful work has been done in Australia. Are the Government researching the work that has been done in Australia to help us better understand the impact of these chemicals?

My Lords, we certainly are aware of the work that has been done in Australia. In fact, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State went there recently and is certainly aware of it. We used that in making our case prior to the vote. That did not seem to work, so we are now working towards doing our own trials to fill out those evidence gaps.

My Lords, there is some evidence that bees can tolerate neonicotinoids. However, when combined with glyphosate, which is in the ubiquitous Roundup, their immune systems become affected. That is one of the reasons why they cannot withstand the varroa bug. Can the Minister say how much research is being done on combinations of pesticides and the way they affect bees, particularly their immune systems?

The noble Baroness makes a point which has concerned a number of people. Considerable work has been done, which shows that chemicals with different toxic actions normally act independently. Chemicals with the same toxic action normally act additively. There is only limited evidence for combination effects in excess of those for individual chemicals.