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Pesticides: Neonicotinoids

Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to lift the moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for agricultural crops.

My Lords, the Government have fully implemented the EU restrictions on three neonicotinoid pesticides. The European Commission has just begun a review of the science underlying these restrictions and has invited submissions of evidence by the end of September. Defra and the Health and Safety Executive will participate fully in this review. We firmly believe that decisions on these issues should be based upon the best possible scientific assessment of risk.

My Lords, the noble Lord is probably aware that neonicotinoids last a long time in the soil and are found in ponds and streams. A group of 30 scientists reviewed more than 800 papers recently and their conclusions, published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, were that:

“The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity [of neonicotinoids] is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”.

Will he and his officials bear that in mind when they go to Europe?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess for that question. Certainly, decisions are kept under review and the Government consider all scientific evidence. As I said earlier, the EU is inviting submissions of evidence and I advise that any of the studies to which she refers should do exactly that.

My Lords, should we not be allowed to decide this sort of thing for ourselves? Since we cannot, why did the Government fail to vote against it in the Council of Ministers? In the resultant absence of a qualified majority in the Council, will they appeal it in December, or will they allow the Commission to pursue it in spite of the latter’s usual third-rate scientific advice?

My Lords, perhaps it would be helpful to the noble Lord if I went through, very briskly, what is required. Pesticides are approved at EU level if they meet safety requirements. The United Kingdom is responsible for authorising products containing approved active substances. I assure your Lordships that both the Health and Safety Executive and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides look at these matters extremely carefully.

I declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire. I congratulate the noble Lord and welcome him to his new position. While the Government may dispute the scientific evidence of the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, nevertheless they should support the precautionary principle. Reports claim that the National Farmers’ Union, in calling for a temporary emergency derogation, has not provided the Government with scientific evidence. Have the Government asked for this evidence? Will they insist on evidence being provided? How do they answer that any derogation will invalidate the large-scale field trials necessary to provide that evidence?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his typically generous remarks. An application is being considered by the Health and Safety Executive and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. It will then be for those opinions to come before Ministers.

My Lords, the recent Swedish field trial on rape seed treated with neonicotinoids showed a decline in both wild bees and bumblebee colonies. Does the Minister agree with the Government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser, who on 14 May called the trial,

“an important contribution to the evidence base”,

against neonicotinoids?

My Lords, as I hope I have impressed upon your Lordships, the decisions made here and in Europe need to be made on the best scientific assessment of risk. Only last November we published the National Pollinator Strategy, which is precisely designed to improve the situation for our 1,500 pollinating insect species. These pollinators are absolutely vital to our food production.

Following the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, can the Minister confirm that not a single beekeeping organisation in this country is in favour of lifting the ban? Beekeepers of my acquaintance all say the same thing: that neonicotinoids are extremely damaging to bee colonies, and that if our bees die and thus stop pollinating we will die too.

My Lords, the background to and reason for the restrictions on the three neonicotinoids is precisely because of the risk assessment that was made about bees. Obviously the EU, after two years, is bringing together all the scientific evidence available so that the issue can be looked at in a thorough manner.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that since neonicotinoids were introduced honey-bee numbers have gone up, not down?

My Lords, I do not have the exact figures. While neonicotinoids are extremely effective in dealing with plants, they are considered much more toxic to insects than to humans and mammals. This is why the decision was made and the UK decided to go along with it, and why it is now being reviewed.

Is the Minister satisfied that the EU is basing its decisions on science? Over the past two or three years, it has made some decisions that have affected our agricultural production that have gone flatly against what we do based on science. One of the first things the new President did, of course, was to get rid of the independent chief scientific adviser.

Our position in this country is that, for us to be secure, all these matters must be undertaken on the basis of the best scientific evidence available, and that is what we intend to do.