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Pesticides: Thiamethoxam

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential negative impacts of their decision to permit the use of the pesticide thiamethoxam for sugar beet cultivation on (1) bee health, and (2) the spread of antimicrobial resistance; and what steps they will take to mitigate the concerns raised by their scientific advisors about the use of this pesticide.

My Lords, the Government have given emergency authorisation for the use of thiamethoxam in 2022 to protect sugar beet from viruses. The environmental assessment identified potential risks to bees and the authorisation imposes strict restrictions to minimise these risks. In particular, the pesticide will be used only if, according to independent modelling, the predicted level of virus is at or above 19% of the national crop. No flowering crop may be planted within 32 months of sugar beet having been treated.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I have no doubt that other Peers will address the absolutely crucial issue of bees. This relates also to our second Question on food security.

In the light of the Lancet article yesterday which showed that, in 2019, 1.3 million people around the world died as a result of antimicrobial resistance, I will focus on the second part of my Question. It is, perhaps, the first time this has been mentioned in the House. Increasing numbers of studies, and increasing understanding, show that cross-resistance can develop. Bacteria exposed to pesticides can end up being resistant to drugs they have never even experienced. Will the Minister commit to going back to his department and speaking to officials to ensure that sufficient account is being taken of this when all pesticides are considered?

I, my department and others mind desperately about antimicrobial resistance. When I saw the wording of the Question, I looked into the matter in some detail. The neonicotinoid we are talking about is an insecticide that is not found to be causally related to antimicrobial resistance. I will look at the Lancet article about which the noble Baroness spoke and I will take her points back. The Government take AMR extremely seriously and we are coming forward with a number of different ideas to tackle this problem.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to update the House on alternative forms of production of sugar beet, such as organic and the work done by LEAF and Rothamsted institute in this regard?

Excellent work is being done and I do not think we will be having this conversation in future years. I very much hope we will not. Enormous amounts are being done through integrated pest management. There is a variety of different breeding techniques and husbandry for sugar beet. So I very much hope that there will be no need for derogations in future.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the health of the bee population in this country, and what contingency plans will they consider if it is deteriorating?

The Government have a pollinator strategy and work closely with the bee sector to make sure that our policies reflect the needs of pollinators right across the piece. The sustainable farming incentive, the key part of our ELMS announcement, has an integrated pest management part. These are the sorts of policy products that have come out of work that we are doing to enhance bee health across the country.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this policy is making a mockery of the promise in the Environment Act to replace the use of toxic pesticides with integrated pest management techniques and low-toxicity solutions? How does the decision comply with the current need under law for pesticide products to have no unacceptable effects on the environment, when this clearly does?

I do not take that view, because we have massively increased the condition that we have applied this year. Last year, the derogation was not used because it did not reach of the already high 9%; we have raised that to 19% this year. There is a wider factor. If there is a catastrophic loss of yield, that sugar will have to come from other countries. Spain, France, Belgium and other EU countries have derogations with very few of the conditions that we have applied. We could damage our sugar infrastructure in this country—the factories that we need to produce sugar for our own population—and export the problem to countries that do not have our conditions and our determination to move towards integrated pest management.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, wishes to speak virtually. It is a good time to call him now.

My Lords, Countryside Online tells us that the sugar beet industry supports 9,500 jobs, produces half of the UK’s sugar and is environmentally friendly because of the low number of miles beet travels from farm to processing plant to consumer. Mr Gove supported a total ban on neonicotinoids when he was Environment Secretary because they harm populations of bees and other pollinators. By allowing their use now, why are the Government breaking their promise to maintain high environmental standards?

My Lords, we are not. We are in exceptional circumstances, responding to an exceptional problem. We are imposing very high standards. I repeat that no flowering crop may be planted on land where this seed dressing is used within 32 months of treated sugar beet. There is a minimal effect on pollinators because sugar beet is not harvested after it has flowered. The other conditions that we have applied might well mean that it will not be used this year.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The key thing is getting the balance between risk and benefit right. Can he confirm that this will be taken on sound scientific grounds and not on emotional grounds? The decision obviously has to be taken at the last possible moment. Does he foresee any logistical problems, as raised in the second Question today, with getting the chemical to the seed producers in time so that the decision can be made at the last possible moment?

I have not heard of any logistical problems. If the weather continues to be cold, it is unlikely that the threshold will be reached and that this will be required at all. If there is a large increase in aphids, which are the vector of this yellows virus disease, measures are already in place, but there is a very good chance that it will not be required to be used at all.

My Lords, another study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology says that small gardens are at least as important as large ones for conserving bees and other pollinators. Are the Government doing anything to encourage small urban gardens?

We provide advice to beekeepers and work with trade bodies and organisations across the country, whether urban or rural. I take this opportunity to applaud the work of the London Pollinator Project, which, as the noble Baroness identified, is of enormous benefit to pollinators in urban areas. It is not just urban gardens; it can be in quite highly built-up urban areas.

Does the noble Lord agree that plant breeding, facilitated by the novel gene editing technologies that are available now, is the progressive way to avoid chemical pesticide use?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. A lot of work is being done in organisations across the country—Rothamsted has been mentioned, but also the Roslin Institute and others in Scotland and England—where we are seeing the possibility of great advances, not through GMOs but through using and perhaps accelerating existing plant breeding techniques that will make these kinds of conversations seem very out of date.

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lady Whitaker, the noble Lord talked about the benefits of urban gardens for pollinators. Of course, he is absolutely right. One of the reasons why pollinators are very well served by urban gardens is that there is the great diversity of plant life there compared with, say, mass agricultural areas. However, there is a problem with people concreting over urban garden space. Could he say what the Government are doing in conjunction with local authorities to discourage this practice? It is a problem not only for pollinators but for flood management.

The noble Baroness’s last point is the one where the Government can be most effective, particularly with building regulations and planning policy. It is hard to say to a householder, “You cannot get rid of a 10 by 10 lawn outside your house”, but we can design in green infrastructure. An enormous amount of work is going on across government to try to make sure that we are greening our planning policies and urban infrastructure to address precisely the point that she raises.