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Sugar Beet: Neonicotinoids

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are considering an emergency application for the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet; and if so, what consideration they will give to the advice of (1) the Health and Safety Executive, and (2) the Expert Committee on Pesticides.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. An application for the emergency authorisation of Cruiser SB, which contains a neonicotinoid, has been received and is currently being considered against the strict, legal requirements for emergency authorisation. The Health and Safety Executive’s assessment, the advice of the expert committee on pesticides and the relevant evidence included in the application itself are all carefully considered as part of the decision-making process.

I thank the Minister for that reply but let us be clear what we are talking about: this pesticide is lethal to bees and other insects, and it leaches into the soil, causing long-term damage to wildlife. During our deliberations on the Environment Bill, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, pledged to work “harder and faster” to address the “dramatic decline in pollinators”, and confirmed that the scientific advice on the damage caused by neonicotinoids was “correct”. Does the Minister accept that any emergency authorisation would make a mockery of previous ministerial assurances? Does he also accept that the use of these toxic pesticides has no place in our sustainable farming plans for the future?

The noble Baroness will be pleased with the progress made that will make these sorts of debates unnecessary in future years. The development of new, resistant strains and the work that has been done, not least at Rothamsted, will mean that we will not have to have this debate in future. We are absolutely committed to protecting wildlife, particularly pollinators—we understand their value—and these decisions are taken in a balanced and careful way.

Will my noble friend assure the House that all other alternative treatments will be deployed on such occasions as this? In particular, can he update the House on where we are with the organic production of sugar beet? I understand that there are alternative treatments, such as breeding aphids that will actually attack the beetle causing the damage to the sugar beet.

The concept of integrated pest management is hardwired into our 25-year environment plan and it is one of the standards in the new sustainable farming incentive, which is the first scheme we are announcing as part of environmental land management. So, absolutely, it is vital. There have been applications this year for any derogations for organic farmers.

Will the Minister make it clear to the House that neonicotinoids are injurious to the health of bees and other pollinators and ought not to be used? What are the Government doing to provide alternatives to these compounds and can he tell us specifically what financial contribution the Government are making to sort this out?

Legislation will come forward—next year, I hope—on gene editing, which is a key measure in finding alternatives to this sort of problem. We are talking about a very small percentage of the area where neonicotinoids were used prior to the 2018 ban, to which the Government are absolutely committed. We are applying very strict conditions—if we go ahead with this; we have not yet made a decision. The last time this derogation was made, those conditions were not met and this spray was not applied. We are a long way from allowing this to go ahead. If it does, it will be under very controlled circumstances.

My Lords, the forecast of virus yellows levels in the 2021 sugar beet crop, produced on 1 March, predicted that 8.37% of the national sugar beet area would be affected by the end of August 2021. As the threshold for the use of neonicotinoids is 9%, can the Minister say whether this threshold has actually been breached and, if not, why are the Government considering emergency neonicotinoid use?

If we did consider giving this permission, we would then have to apply thresholds. They may be different from the thresholds we applied last year. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: that threshold was not reached and so no seed dressings were applied. I hope very much that that will be the case this year.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government have not yet made their decision, and referred to the advice from the Health and Safety Executive and the Expert Committee on Pesticides. I invite, encourage and ask the Minister to consult, as part of his decision-making, a body such as the Royal Society of Biology, the expert professional body in this field, which is full of an enormous amount of expertise—and, moreover, like other scientific bodies of this kind, has a duty under its charter to serve the public interest. Will he consider approaching it for advice?

We are open to any advice. There are people from the Royal Society, Rothamsted and many other organisations that provide information, much of which was based on the ban that we introduced in 2018 and any of the conditions that we might make for exemptions this time. The noble Viscount is therefore absolutely right to raise the widest possible type of evidence to be sought.