I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 104796 relating to the use of neonicotinoids on crops.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Chairman, and may I wish you a very happy birthday? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Whoever said I was a suck-up?
Neonicotinoids are more easily referred to as neonics. As a dyslexic, I will use that phrase for ease. Neonics are a class of pesticides used on crops to control pests such as aphids and grubs. The petition, which received more than 90,000 signatures, was prompted by the effect that neonics have on pollinators in the UK, specifically bees. The petition states:
“Neonicotinoids, especially seed treatments of imidacloprid and clothianidin on arable crops, have become of increasing concern to beekeepers and bee researchers in recent years with many of them suspecting that they may be connected to current bee declines. These concerns have led to partial bans on the use of some neonicotinoids for specific crops in several European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. Bees are already facing sharp declines in their numbers and need help.”
The EU placed a ban on three types of neonics just over two years ago. However, attention was returned to the issue when the Government permitted limited use of the substances as an emergency measure.
I want to discuss the importance of bees before continuing to discuss neonics, the EU approach and the recent permission granted by the Government for some farmers in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, on your birthday.
Given the level of interest in this subject—it is clear from this room and from my inbox that the residents of Mid Dorset and North Poole and people around the rest of the country are concerned—perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on the revitalising of the all-party group to inform and discuss the issue further.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I welcome the creation of the all-party group by our hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I believe the APPG is meeting on Wednesday and he would like as many Members as possible to attend.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on your birthday, Ms Vaz. I will continue the trend.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. There has been a significant amount of interest in my constituency of Torfaen over the weekend, and I echo the concern of all my constituents about the effect of neonicotinoids on the decline of bees. Does the hon. Gentleman agree about the potential effect on the decline of butterflies, which has been noted recently in research by the Universities of Stirling and Sussex?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that not only bees, but a range of different insects are put at risk.
I must say that it was not me who secured the debate; it was the 90,000 people out there who signed the e-petition, which was taken forward by the Petitions Committee.
May I also say it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on your birthday, Ms Vaz, and on my 30th wedding anniversary?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wish to reflect the concern of people in Chesham and Amersham about the state of bees. The British Beekeepers Association’s annual honey survey has shown a 34% drop in the honey crop this year, partly due to poor weather and windy conditions, and also queen issues in the hives.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention; many a time I have ended up having to stand up and respond to queen issues. That is an in-joke. I am incredibly alarmed by the decline of the bee population in the UK. Climate change has had a serious impact.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to make some progress, but I will bring in as many Members as possible during my speech.
On the importance of bees, apart from providing the summery buzzing sound that we hear, bees are crucial to our natural environment. They pollinate most of our crops and many wild flowers, as well as playing a crucial role in supporting wider biodiversity. However, this crucial part of our nation’s wildlife is in danger from a combination of factors that have led some species to become extinct. In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that England had seen the greatest decline in wild bee populations anywhere in Europe. That cannot be ignored.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 94,000 people, I think, who petitioned. Does he agree that this is an issue across the country? In my very urban constituency, I have had 430 emails so far on this matter. Does he think the Government need to be consistent in their ban on bee-harming pesticides? They seem to be flip-flopping at the moment, and pesticides are damaging many crops.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I represent an urban constituency—we have two farms in Bath—but we have a lot of people who are beekeepers or members of the Beekeepers Association. This is a wider issue, but everyone in our country buys honey— or rather, most people buy it if they have a taste for it —and we need to ensure we give enough support to bees. I agree that the Government’s line needs to be consistent.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I was a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which strongly recommended a moratorium in the previous Parliament. Does he agree that the Government should look again at that EAC recommendation? Earlier this year, the single study used to justify the UK’s voting against current restrictions was widely discredited, and the key scientists behind it left to join the pesticides company Syngenta. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the light of that, we need to revisit the UK’s decision?
I agree there is a range of scientific evidence, which I have started to get my head round. I am looking at as much as possible, and I would like the Government to do something similar.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. On the island, Dave Cassell is chairman of the Isle of Wight Beekeepers Association. They would plead for farmers to be given more information from the Government about what the least damaging time of day to spray is. I am told that spraying in the evening is much less damaging than in the daytime.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I honestly do not know the answer, but I hope that I can pass the buck to the Minister.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to make a little headway, but I will give way to hon. Members in a moment.
The decline in the British bee population is not solely caused by the use of neonics. A variety of factors combine to result in a severe decrease in the number of bees in the UK. Climate change is having an effect on the population, as is the loss of habitats, intensification on land use, the spread of pests and diseases, and the use of pesticides in farming. Those causes can be interlinked and all need to be addressed. However, today’s debate focuses on the use of neonics.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As his right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) mentioned earlier, the honey crop has fallen by about 30%. What does he think we can do generally about the situation? The problem does not apply only to Britain, but to other countries as well, and it has been going on for several years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. This is an international problem and it needs to be looked into at a European Union level as well. I understand the Government are doing so.
The issue that worries me and many of my constituents—and, I suspect, others around the country—is the decline of the bee population. I am grateful that my hon. Friend has pointed out there is not a single cause for the decline. Does he agree that we need a varied response from the Government that covers a number of issues in order to crack the real problem?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that a multifaceted approach and strategy must be considered. Hopefully my hon. Friend the Minister will set that out when he responds.
My hon. Friend will probably be aware that Robin Page of the Countryside Restoration Trust, who writes and speaks a lot of sense on these sorts of issues, has drawn attention to the parallel between the rise in the badger population and the decrease in the number of ground-nesting bees. Someone should do some extra research on that. Does my hon. Friend agree that whenever the Government and the EU apply science to these matters, science must always be front and centre when decisions are taken, but where there is uncertainty the precautionary principle should always come to the fore?
I agree that there should be more scientific research into this issue. I have not read the article to which my hon. Friend referred, but I am sure that he speaks with great eminence on the subject.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. It is very well attended, which shows how important it is. It is important that there is openness and transparency on the science and evidence. Such transparency might well help the Government. The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, wrote to the Secretary of State on 1 September saying that she should publish all the evidence in a timely manner so that everyone can investigate. Things have moved on since then, but it would be good for all parties if, when decisions are made, the evidence is put out there so that everyone can interrogate it in a timely manner. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Yes. An open and transparent world would be an awful lot more useful for our constituents, who, to be frank, have struggled. I must admit that I, too, have struggled to find some of the information that is available.
Moving on, I am well aware that the farming community produces some good arguments for the necessity of pesticides and neonics, which in some instances are much more effective than other pesticides. Nevertheless, a balance needs to be struck. Crops are without doubt an essential part of our nation’s agricultural sector, but bees also play an essential role in our natural environment as pollinators and otherwise.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Like many other Members present, I have been contacted by lots of constituents, one of whom signed off with the line:
“If the bees go, we’re all in trouble.”
I think we would all agree.
Along with colleagues, I have just returned from the GLOBE International conference in Paris, which coincided with COP21. Environmental resilience was very much to the fore. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in a crucial week for climate change globally, this subject is part of a much bigger picture? We should take it very seriously.
I agree that we need to look at this issue much more strategically.
My hon. friend is making an excellent speech. The most important part of it for me is that he said that the decline in the bee population in this country is the biggest in western Europe. Rather than concentrating on why bees are declining generally, we should ask what it is about this country that means we are doing worse than anywhere else.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have to admit that I am not an expert on this subject. Hopefully, the Minister will answer that question in due course.
Moving on to the rest of my speech, neonics are of great concern to many of our constituents because of how they operate. As I have said, I am not a scientist, but I understand that neonics are rapidly absorbed when sprayed on plants or, more commonly, used to treat seeds to protect plants throughout their lives. As well as disrupting the neurological function of the pests they are meant to target, neonics are also toxic to bees and other pollinators. In 2013, the EU introduced a ban on the use of three types of neonics on crops that are particularly attractive to bees—namely, spring-planted cereals and flowering crops.
On the point about the three types of neonicotinoids that caused concern back in 2013, does my hon. Friend agree that the farming community and, indeed, retail can play a leadership role on this issue? The Leckford estate, which is owned by the John Lewis Partnership, is in my constituency. In response to the concerns in 2013, it stopped using neonics, and since then has done masses of work to increase the viability and sustainability of all pollinators on the estate.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent intervention. I agree that removing neonics from the chain of production has not caused some sort of massive collapse in the system. In many ways it has had a very limited effect. I agree that all producers have a responsibility.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way before he moves on. He is showing expertise minute by minute and so should not worry; we will get there. I have a farming background. My hon. Friend touched on how long neonics can remain and the studies of the chemicals’ long-term effects. There are conflicting conclusions. Many of those present, and many of the constituents who write to us, are confused by the science, the conclusions that are drawn and the warnings we are given, but we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) that there can be alternatives. I do not believe that all the options are being explored.
Yes, there is a mix of evidence out there. We do not yet have a definitive answer, but hopefully we will hear one from the Minister. I empathise greatly with the view that much more evidence should be put out there, because it sometimes feels as if one is going through the process but the information is just not readily available.
Moving on quickly, there are still types of neonics whose usage is not controlled. The three banned types can still be used as a seed dressing on crops such as sugar beet and winter cereals. Earlier this year, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority to collect information on the risks posed to bees by the three banned neonics. The authority is currently reviewing the data it collected and will soon provide conclusions as to the risks. It collected information from more than 370 contributors, which will increase our understanding of the effects of neonics, so I hope that the Government listen to the findings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and also wish you, Ms Vaz, a happy birthday. Many of my constituents are very concerned about this issue, which is important to the whole of Somerset and the west country, and I share many of those concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to understand the criteria on which the Government will make their decision, if they ever do?
I would not possibly speak on the Government’s behalf, but I hope the Minister will answer that question by explaining the criteria that will be under consideration.
The EU allows member states to authorise the usage of the banned neonics products to deal with emergency situations that are temporary, limited in scale and controlled, in order to address a danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means. The Government granted permission for their use on oilseed rape where the crops are in greatest risk of pest damage. The area that was granted permission, which extends across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, represents just 5% of the UK oilseed rape crop area. The Government rejected two earlier applications that would have covered 79% of the crop area. I am pleased that the Government accepted the application only for a far smaller area, but I am still concerned about the potential impact of neonics on the bee population in that area.
Field studies have suggested that the levels of exposure experienced by bees in the wild are not sufficient to cause any negative consequences for the pollinators. The problem with relying on that assertion is that there have not been experiments of a significant scale to provide definitive evidence on which to base our approach to neonics. The usage currently authorised by the Government provides a good chance to ascertain on a bigger scale what their impact might be.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and join others in wishing you a happy birthday, Ms Vaz. Is my hon. Friend familiar with the study by the European Academies Science Advisory Council that shows that, even at sub-lethal doses, the impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators can be such that the reduced crop yields actually offset any benefits from using them as a pesticide in the first place?
Yes, I have seen that report, and I agree with my hon. Friend about its findings.
The Government have frequently and rightly stated that they will base their future policies on scientific evidence. They admirably said that decisions need to be ruled by science, but if they are committed to that, then proper data must be collected from the crop areas that have been granted permission to use neonics. Because neonics are absorbed so well by plants, residues are found on the pollen and nectar, which consequently affects pollinators. Evidence about the effect of such residues is crucial for future conservation work, so I encourage the Government to consider using approved plots to help to shape future decisions.
The high number of signatures on the petition shows how concerned the public are about the harm that neonics cause to bees and other pollinators. I urge the Government to gather more scientific evidence from the EU’s research and from sites that currently use the banned neonics. I also urge them to consider other types of neonics that are currently authorised but may have a detrimental effect. Since 1990, the UK has lost about 20 species of bees. We cannot afford to keep losing those crucial pollinators.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the many petitioners on raising this important subject; I can report that many of my constituents are positively buzzing with excitement at the prospect of this debate.
We all agree that we need bees: they pollinate our food crops and wild flowers and play an essential role in supporting wider biodiversity. As we all know, however, their numbers have declined dramatically. DEFRA described the trend as “severe” and admitted that the sharp decline in England is greater than that experienced by any other country in Europe. We have lost more than 20 species of bees in just over a century, and 35 bee species are considered to be under threat of extinction. This is clearly a very serious issue.
The reasons for the problem are complex and many. They include habitat change, the spread of pests, diseases and invasive species, and climate change. The list goes on, and its breadth is intimidating to lay people. Those multiple pressures and stresses are sometimes linked and interrelated, so our responses must be sophisticated, but there is one contributory cause that could and should be tackled now: the use of pesticides, and in particular of neonicotinoid pesticides.
As we have heard, neonicotinoids have been used widely by farmers in the UK for pest control purposes on a range of agricultural and horticultural crops—in particular, as seed treatments on oilseed rape, cereals, sugar beet and maize. Neonicotinoids act on the brains and nervous systems of insects, including bees, and affect motor function, feeding, learning, homing, foraging and reproduction.
Two years ago, the European Union restricted the use of three types of neonicotinoid pesticide—a move supported by the majority of EU member states, but, ironically, not by the “greenest ever” coalition Government, who were one of just a handful of member states to oppose the measure. That decision flew in the face of hard, sound evidence. Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the three commonly used neonicotinoids posed an unacceptable danger and
“A high acute risk to honey bees”.
It recommended a full ban on all neonicotinoids.
My hon. Friend is making a very good case. As he said, it was disappointing that the UK opposed the ban. Does he agree that the scientific evidence gathered since then has strengthened the case in favour of a ban?
I very much agree. Those of us who have ploughed through the detailed report find it overwhelming. It was disappointing that, after opposing the earlier advice, the coalition Government published a 10-year national pollinator strategy for bees and other pollinators that did not go nearly far enough. Specifically, it ignored the challenge that neonicotinoid use poses to pollinators.
This autumn, the Government, despite the growing evidence demonstrating the adverse impact of neonicotinoids on pollinator numbers, granted an emergency authorisation for their use. In my county of Cambridgeshire, it allowed farmers to plant oilseed rape with neonicotinoid-treated seeds, which sparked many protests across my constituency and contributed to half a million people across the country signing petitions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that decision was made a little too soon, as not enough research had been done?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Many people felt that at the time. We all agree that the challenge is how best to take a science-led approach to the use of pesticides. We must balance the need to support farmers and protect food security with the need to protect wildlife and reverse the decline of pollinators.
As a former vice-chair of the all-party group on honey bees, I welcome this debate but I caution my hon. Friend that it is difficult for farmers and those of us who are not scientists. On 26 August, the European Food Safety Agency put out a press release stating that neonicotinoids should continue to be banned, even though it was still gathering evidence on a procedure that did not close until 30 September. It is now considering that evidence and looking at whether the ban should continue. That does not help, and makes the issue more confusing for people.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. These issues are complex, and we are trying to balance the various risks. The Government said that they will listen to the scientific evidence to inform any changes to their position, but despite the strong evidence they still seem to be sticking their fingers in their ears. Since the EU restrictions were introduced two years ago, many peer-reviewed studies have been carried out in lab and real-world settings that underline how damaging such chemicals are for bees.
I just want to fly in on this debate with the observation that the Environmental Audit Committee published a powerful report in the previous Parliament on this very issue. The new Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee is here—or at least he was. That report is well worth reading.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Bees are the gift that keeps on giving to parliamentarians.
I understand farmers’ concerns. Local farmers have explained to me that they have lost crops when they have not been able to use such pesticides. But taking a wider view, there is no really compelling evidence showing widespread crop failure since restrictions on neonicotinoids were introduced. In fact, the 2014 DEFRA report found that in the immediate aftermath of the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013, the net yield for rapeseed actually increased by 16%. Furthermore, bees have a crucial role to play in improving crop yields and quality. A decline in pollinators as a consequence of neonicotinoids will paradoxically harm the very crops that farmers are trying to protect, and many farmers appreciate that fact.
Would the hon. Gentleman welcome the countryside stewardship scheme that, ultimately, the Government announced earlier this year? I understand that the scheme, which will amount to £900 million, will be open to people competing for projects, with particular emphasis on bees and pollinators. Extra points will be given to agreements that work to support bees, pollinators and other farm wildlife. Surely that is a really good opportunity for people in the countryside—farmers and others— to bid for projects under the scheme and, hopefully, to produce the evidence we need to keep our bee population healthy.
Stewardship schemes have always been important in rural areas. I strongly support them and, as someone who believes in intervention, I will continue to do so.
New research suggests that neonicotinoids might be damaging food production. There is some evidence that apples pollinated by bumblebees exposed to neonics are of a lower quality to those pollinated by neonic-free bumblebees. Although I sympathise with and understand the concerns of farmers who argue that they need such chemicals to grow their crops, it is worth bearing in mind that, given the rate at which bee colonies are collapsing, before long many existing crops will be at risk unless farmers take the very expensive action of pollinating their crops themselves—a service currently provided free of charge by bees across the country.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Members on both sides of the Chamber would agree that the decline in the bee population in this country is higher than in any other country in western Europe. The hon. Gentleman is contending that the reason for that decline is the use of such pesticides. If that is not correct—I do not know whether it is or not —can he suggest a possible alternative reason, or does every route that he has used to explore this issue lead him to conclude that such pesticides are the cause of the decline in the bee population in this country?
The hon. Gentleman comes to the sensible conclusion—the one that I am coming to—that the use of neonicotinoids is the prime problem that we should be acting against. When all is said and done, pollination services are critical for both ecosystem function and crop production and are estimated to be worth between £430 million and £603 million a year to UK agriculture.
In conclusion, bees have been the unhappy victims of neonicotinoid use. Their decline is not only devastating for wildlife, but damaging to food production and our agricultural economy. It is time that the Government ended what some of us fear might be a slight case of knee-jerk anti-Europeanism, listened to the public pleas and scientific sense and ensured that our bees and farmers can flourish.
I thank you for calling me to speak and wish you a happy birthday, Ms Vaz. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and the 90,000 people who signed the petition for creating such a buzz around the subject, which affects us all indirectly. I had my usual Somerset honey for breakfast, but there is sadly a lot less of it right now.
I wanted to speak in this debate for a whole range of reasons. As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I have an interest in sustainably producing safe food for the nation for the long term and in support of the Government’s 25-year food and farming plan. DEFRA fully understands the need to produce more food at home, and I am delighted that the Department has highlighted its understanding of the significance of bees through the bee pollinator strategy mentioned earlier. I speak to represent the farmers in my constituency, with whom I have had many discussions about the issue and who are, after all, vital custodians of our countryside, which needs to be a functioning ecosystem, as the Environmental Audit Committee has highlighted. I also speak as a promise to the many hundreds of people who have contacted me about the issue. They are truly passionate about the plight of our bees and followed my campaign, during which I made the topic a major point.
They made a beeline for you.
They made a beeline for me, yes. It is telling that I have had more emails about this subject than about the Syria debate, and I had an awful lot of those.
I am also speaking up for the bees today, as I am sure we all are, because we owe them a great debt, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, and we must not underestimate their value. What they do for us worldwide is in the region of £360 billion-worth of services, pollinating 90% of our crops. They are unbelievable unpaid workers. As a former environmental and gardening broadcaster and journalist, this subject is close to my heart. My key message to the Minister is a call for balance and for scientific evidence. Neonicotinoids and their effect on bees must be taken seriously in light of the aforementioned need to produce food more sustainably. This is about not taking risks and weighing up the benefits of pesticides against their collateral damage. In 2013, the EU suspended the use of three types of neonics due to concern about the impact on bees. It was a political decision and politicians can only make decisions based on the science available at the time.
The UK went along with the suspension, but was sceptical about the evidence. The Minister may expand on this later, but I think it was more about concerns regarding the alternative pesticides that might be used—the old ones—were people not able to use neonics. The UK has since lifted the suspension of two of the offending pesticides on 5% of England’s oilseed rape crop, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bath referred. This December, however, the EU will be reviewing the neonic pesticide restrictions, which is what makes this debate so timely. Since 2013, much new evidence has come to light, which is why I am at pains to make it clear that the new evidence must be considered by the EU, the European Food Safety Authority and, in particular, by our Government.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is she aware that the matter is of great international concern? In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing neonics and the risk assessments associated with such pesticides. Would it not be good if our Government co-ordinated with the evidence base that the American review will produce?
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. It is an international issue, but people on the doorstep are also concerned. We should all work together. I think something like 90% of some produce in the US comes from California and it would be devastating if bee pollination crashed so much that all those crops had to be pollinated by hand, as they now are in some parts of China.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. All of us here would agree that the issue is international. Given her extensive experience in this subject in this country, can she tell us why the bee population here is declining faster than anywhere else in western Europe?
My hon. Friend gives me more credit than I am due. I have read widely, but I am not an absolute expert. I cannot answer that question except by saying that that is why we need more research. People used to think that the damage caused by the varroa mite was the reason for population crashes, but the problem is clearly much bigger and must be related in some way to pesticides. The weather also comes into play, but many factors are involved.
I call on the Minister to ensure that everything is taken into account when decisions are made relating to the world’s most widely used insecticide on the world’s most widely managed pollinator and on Europe’s most widely grown mass flowering crop, namely oilseed rape. No one can argue that insecticides are not designed to kill insects. They are acute toxins. Bees and other important pollinators are bound to be killed by insecticides targeted at, for example, the flea beetle, which attacks oilseed rape and which farmers want to control. I will outline some of the concerning new evidence.
One study found that bee numbers have not actually been declining where neonics have been applied, but that clever bees are trying to compensate by reproducing more. More eggs were laid, but more worker bees were produced, not the drones that are necessary for breeding, so numbers gradually start to go down. Is the pesticide causing that effect? Is it working on the wild flowers in the hedgerows adjacent to fields? Are the bees being affected?
I think my hon. Friend attended with me a reception hosted by Friends of the Earth on this issue in the summer. I was struck by the clear lack of control regarding run-off and the build-up of residue in field margins, watercourses and field drains, which is beyond any form of measurement but allegedly has a negative impact on bee numbers and their health and environment. Should the Government and producers be doing more to try to arrest the situation?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many studies are now starting to look at the effects on field margins. During the first trials, quadrats were laid only in the fields where the spray had been applied, but it is now realised that we must look much wider and at what happens in the next year and the year after.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
We have all buzzed back from voting. I will try not to drone on for too much longer.
On a serious note, not so long ago everyone had dire memories of the pesticide DDT. The lesson to learn from that is that we must not take risks. In the 1980s I remember sitting in the Agriculture Select Committee’s inquiry into agricultural pesticides which looked in particular at the effects of sheep dip on human health, and this issue is as serious as that, as I think hon. Members would agree.
I want to refer to research on apple tree pollination, as did the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). We know how important bees are for pollinating the apple crop. Recent research at the University of Reading found that bumblebees who had been exposed to neonics visited fewer trees and collected less pollen than those who had not been exposed. When the researchers cut the apples open, they found a third less pips than would be expected. Pips are an important sign of good pollination, and good pollination and lots of pips means good quality fruit, which is not just good for us and our health, but valuable to the farmers.
Interestingly, it was discovered that bees exposed to neonics spent much longer foraging but were less effective than those who had not been exposed. That is odd, because that means that those bees were not looking for food, which is what bees should be doing.
As a producer of cider, the health of apple trees is terribly important to me. What sort of research into neonics and its effect on bees does my hon. Friend think would be useful?
Lots of research is still going on, which is why more and more evidence is coming forward, which is heartening. The chief scientific adviser has commissioned a lot of field trials, which I expect we will hear about later. However, research must cover the whole countryside including the hedgerows, ditches and streams and not just the specific areas where rapeseed and maize crops are grown.
Back to those bees who were exhibiting rather odd behaviour, that they were foraging away but not being effective suggests that their behaviour had been changed, possibly, it is alleged, by pesticides. It is worrying if that affects the bee’s memory and ability to learn about and do productive foraging.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that bees are particularly important to our ecosystems, and that nothing is more important than following a precautionary principle when we look at pesticides? Does she not also think that we can all play our part by trying to encourage growth in the bee population by planting wild flowers in our meadows and gardens? Will she congratulate two constituents of mine, the Cordwell family in East Coker, who every year run a wonderful community event?
My hon. Friend has obviously been looking over my shoulder at my script, because I am coming on to that point. I know of that field of wild flowers, which is truly a heaven for bees. Individually, we can all play our part to help the bees and I urge everyone, including all those who signed the petition, to do that in our green spaces and gardens. If we add all our gardens up, they come to 1 million hectares of land, which is a huge habitat.
Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating the local trust in Calderglen, in East Kilbride, which helps my constituents, including local children, to learn about beekeeping and the importance of bees’ contribution to our environment and the ecosystem?
I will congratulate it. That is exactly the sort of work we should encourage. I think the new all-party group on bees—I hope I am not giving anything away—is going to try to set up a House of Commons apiary. How exciting would that be? That would be really good—we could all learn about beekeeping.
As I was saying, all our gardens together make up 1 million hectares of land, which would be a very valuable habitat if we all did things that helped bees and other insects. I do those kinds of things in my garden; indeed, before I came to this place, I gave talks about this subject and invited people to my garden to show them what I had done.
We do not need to use chemicals in our gardens. People should leave their borders long all winter—I do. People might think that that will look a mess, but solitary bees and other over-wintering insects can take shelter there in the winter and hibernate in all those lovely hollow stems. People should not cut their borders down until February.
People should also have lots of flowers from January to December. That is quite possible—I photographed all my flowers yesterday, and I am putting the pictures on my website. We should do that because some bees are still around. Those solitary bees have not gone to hibernate yet—they have not gone into those little stems yet. They still need some nectar, and if they wake up early, they will need some nectar. We can all do things to help.
In summary, I call on the EU and the Government, through the chief scientific adviser and DEFRA, to give all new evidence regarding the effects of neonics on bees the utmost attention.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is summing up, but she has hit the nail on the head. Everybody is concerned. The farmers want to see the bees, and so does everybody else. However, the huge difficulty for all concerned is finding out which body, with which methodology for garnering research, they can have faith in. Some people will be suspicious of work supported, sponsored or commissioned by the pesticide manufacturers, while others will be concerned if it is sponsored or commissioned by environmental groups, which are believed to be unfriendly towards farmers. Can my hon. Friend indicate who might best commission such research?
I am going to leave that to the Minister. There are many scientific bodies involved, and it would take a long time to answer that question. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Environment Centre in York, Reading University and some Scottish universities are doing work on this. That work is invaluable, and we must look at the assessments that are made.
I ask the Minister please not to take unnecessary risks with the environment and with human health. Will he please invest in innovation and science so that we can find new, non-toxic ways of controlling pests and disease—ways that that will work and that will ensure that our precious farmers can produce our food in a healthy fashion, while our important bees can go about their daily work in a similarly healthy fashion?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I hope today is everything you wished for.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on his excellent series of sentences. I also congratulate the petitioners on securing the debate. I am here in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr)—indeed, I am something of a plan B—but I do have a personal interest in bees, in that I once had a hive in my bedroom. I did not want it there, but the bees had decided that my chimney was a great place to create a hive. That gave me an interest in bees, which I have kept to this day.
Would my hon. Friend agree with the interested residents of East Renfrewshire, many of whom have been in touch with me to raise their concerns? They believe it is vital that we take account of all available research into the decline of bee populations and into changes in bee behaviour, and that we take a precautionary approach.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We should take the most cautious approach we can in looking after not only bees, but other pollinators. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that nearly 10% of bee species are under threat. The intensification of agriculture and seasonal crops have reduced food for bees, creating an ongoing problem.
Neonicotinoids are thought to transfer chemicals through crop growth to various pollinators. Protection for bees, and encouragement for a friendly environment, should be something we are all concerned about. However, the Government caused outrage in July, when they lifted the EU ban for 120 days. They now say they will follow the best advice. The background is that there are concerns about the efficiency of DEFRA-funded trials. That message is too weak to allay citizens’ concerns about bees.
I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that is why it is critical that we proceed with caution. On the use of neonics, the Scottish Government have taken a cautious, evidence-based approach, as they do on many issues. They take the view that if the science is not clear, there is a need for further research. Scotland’s current position complies with EU legislation, which does not allow the three neonics to be used on crops, especially ones with flowers that are attractive to bees.
I thank my hon. Friend. Indeed, the Scottish Government view is that the EU does not allow the three neonicotinoids to be used on crops attractive to bees.
Bees and pollinating insects are vital to our health, wellbeing and future. The pesticides we are talking about are rightly banned in the EU while full scientific tests are carried out to see whether they are harmful. The decision by the Scottish Government and the Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, that they will not support any relaxation of restrictions unless there is clear evidence that neonicotinoids pose no threat to those species is the right way to proceed. I hope the Minister will come back with some strong measures to back up the Scottish Government’s approach.
I am pleased to be speaking today. Like many here, I am a new boy when it comes to learning about bees. However, I followed a wild bee nest at home for about 20 years. Every year it was there; every year it was buzzing. Then, suddenly, it was gone—a badger had climbed up the tree and cleared it out. That is another risk. However, at least that taught me the importance of bees.
I wish you happy birthday, Ms Vaz; I hope you have a more exciting time this evening than you are perhaps having at the moment. I am pleased that those behind the petition have raised the issue before us.
Like everyone else, I want to call for a balanced approach. At home, many farmers come to me saying that the pesticides they use do not work, and that they cannot get the growth they need. On the other side, I have 25 beehives at home—they are not mine—and the man who looks after them is complaining about insecticides, but also about many other things. The neonics are not one of the things he has complained about, although he has complained about the varroa mite among many other issues. We need to concentrate on a whole approach.
I hope the Minister will find a way of balancing what the EU and all the groups here are doing. Equally, I hope he will look at the joint Irish approach being taken north and south of the border; in that way, we will be learning all the time. I am really looking for us to take a dynamic approach so that we are constantly looking at everything, learning all the time, making decisions and, as the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said, taking no risks. We should make our decisions based on the knowledge we have—if we do not know enough, we should not make the decisions.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech. Does he agree that this is one area of public policy debate that unites urban and rural? In Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of correspondence, particularly from people with allotments. They live in a highly urban area, but they are just as passionately concerned about this issue as people in more rural communities.
I certainly agree. I know that both a rural and urban approach are needed, and there are ways of doing that. If we consider what we know today, we can make decisions and move things forward.
I was keen, as a new boy in this place, to set up an all-party group on bees, so I am fascinated to hear that that has been done. I knew very little about the subject, so I started exploring it. When I went to one of its events in September, people from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said to me, “Please don’t just go on bees alone; go on all pollinators—the butterflies and everything else. Fine, call it the ‘all-party group on bees’, but we should be looking after all the different insects involved in pollination.”
I had never heard of the solitary bee; what intrigues me about it is that it apparently covers itself in an oil so that it can hide in damp ground. I come from Northern Ireland, where we have lots of damp ground, particularly at the moment, so I imagine we have plenty of solitary bees. The more I got involved in this issue, the more I realised there was to learn.
It has been mentioned today that we have lost 20 species of bee. Let us all learn from that. We need a system that teaches everybody, so that we are all learning about this—children in schools, parents and people in later life, in clubs and in community groups. Let us get everybody involved and learning. That might mean getting councils to use more of their land for beehives and planting the right plants, perhaps at roundabouts and in verges. There are plenty of places we can use.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a key part of this debate is food security and food supply? In Scotland, crop pollination by bees and other insects is of particular importance for oilseed rape, tomatoes and strawberries, which we hold dear. On the matter of engagement and education, would he join me in congratulating organisations such as the West Lothian Beekeepers Association in my constituency, which does its best to support beekeeping at a grassroots level?
I certainly congratulate the West Lothian Beekeepers Association. I know there are many such organisations. In Northern Ireland, we have a huge apple-growing, cider-making county in County Armagh, so we know the importance of pollinators.
The petition hardly touched Northern Ireland. I did not have more emails about bees than about Syria over the weekend, but it was pretty close. There is massive interest in the bees issue, but sadly not many people knew about the petition. All of us—including Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland—need to work together and learn from one another. There is an all-Ireland strategy; we need to learn from that, and I need to find out more about it.
We need to look at all the other things that affect bees, right the way through to the husbandry and how we all work. I would like to see the all-party group up and running, with us all being part of it, and the Minister using it as a way to sound people out and hear different concerns and ideas. That is the way forward. This is a wonderful thing to be part of. It is nice to have something from Northern Ireland that is not orange or green; if I can make a really bad joke, we did have B Specials, but they are extinct.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. Happy birthday to you. I thank all the people who secured the debate by public petition; I believe their number sits at 90,000 at the moment—that is quite a lot of people who are interested in bees. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for bringing this debate forward. There have been a lot of good contributions. If you will indulge me, Ms Vaz, I will make some observations.
Although we are not in full possession of all the facts, we have to tread carefully. Mankind has a poor track record when it comes to environmental and ecological protection, and the loss of pollinators from the ecosystem and the knock-on effects of that on the food chain should cause serious alarm. That has serious implications. In a world with an ever-increasing population, we must forward-plan to ensure the challenges of tomorrow are not realised in hindsight. Significant changes must be made to how we live on the planet if we are not only to survive but thrive.
We need to recognise that we may not be fully aware of the effects of neonics on humans. Bread sold in the UK has been tested and shown to contain pesticide residues in 60% of cases—three out of every five loaves, which is utterly astonishing. The potential health impacts concern me greatly. The American National Institutes of Health finished a landmark 20-year study last year, which indicated that seven pesticides—some of which are very widely used—may be causing clinical depression in farmers. The study showed a significant correlation between depression and the pesticides studied.
While the human population is increasing, the bee population is plummeting. Does the hon. Lady agree that the continued use of neonics will not allow the bee population to recover? My constituents in Neath—a beautiful rural area, made for bees—and the West Glamorgan Beekeepers Association are very concerned about that.
I concur with the hon. Lady and take her point on board.
We simply do not know the long-term effects of these toxins on our bodies. We must recognise the other measures that need to be taken in order to plan for the future. We have heard that bee numbers are rapidly dropping. We heard from the hon. Member for Bath that neonicotinoids have been banned in countries such as France, Germany and Slovenia, to name a few. We would be here until half-past 7 tomorrow evening if I went through all the excellent interventions there have been today. We heard about the 34% drop in the honey crop and about queen issues in the hives.
My constituents have been writing to me about the worrying decline in the honeybee population. One thing they have raised is whether we should have more programmes explicitly designed to improve the situation. Two of the initiatives mentioned, which are bolder than the ones we have at the moment, are the healthy bees plan and the insect pollinators initiative. Both were agreed under the previous Labour Administration. Does the hon. Lady agree that such programmes need to be put in place, and that we should work in a cross-party way to urge the Government to do so?
I am sure the Minister will answer that question when he sums up. Today’s debate has proved that many Members are interested in bees, and we want to work in a cross-party way. I am glad to see that the APPG has been set up, and I will be joining it.
Like the hon. Member for Bath, I am not an expert on bees, but we all wish to learn about this issue. As the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) said, the issue is about education—educating ourselves and young people in schools. We have heard throughout the debate that the moratorium should stay in place. Farms and farmers need more information from Government. One question raised was about the best time to spray crops, which can perhaps be answered.
This is an international and European Union issue. We need a varied response from the UK Government. We need to look at the scientific research and do more research. We heard that we need an open, transparent, evidence-based approach and that we must interrogate the evidence in turn. It is clear that lots of MPs have attended this debate because of the amount of lobbying they have received.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) made the point that this issue is not just rural but urban as well. We need to look at environmental resilience and climate change—the bigger picture—and at the length of time that pesticides are exposed in the air and around crops. There are alternatives, but the issue is all about evidence and building an evidence base. We heard that 20 species of bees have already been lost because of habitat change and climate change, so we need to look at that. As I mentioned, in Scotland we have a ban in place, and we have to keep that. It is too soon for a decision, but we need to take a science-based approach. The situation is still confusing and a few people are saying that the UK Government are still not listening on this complex issue.
One of the best interventions we heard was from the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who said that bees were the gift that keeps on giving to parliamentarians. It is also important to keep the stewardship schemes in place in rural areas. We may need to pollinate crops if we lose bees.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said that we cannot take risks and looked back to the ’80s and the effects of sheep dip on human health. There are issues to do with people’s health, so we need to be very careful. We heard from her that bees spend longer foraging, but are not as effective, and how that has impacted on apple trees. Interestingly, she said that bees’ memories were being affected and asked whether neonicotinoids were why. Again, it all comes back to us wanting to produce food in a healthy fashion and to take an evidence-based approach.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) mentioned that he had had a hive in his bedroom, which was very interesting to hear. Perhaps he could get involved in the APPG in Parliament as well. The hon. Member for South Antrim mentioned that we need to look at the joint Irish approach. He said that we should not take risks and that we should take decisions once we know enough. He added that we should all learn together and work together to find out more.
I would like a couple of questions to be answered. Will the UK Government undertake to adopt the same sensible, cautious, evidence-based approach shown by the Scottish Government? Will the Minister also address some of the concerns raised, such as the suggested link between pesticides and depression? Everybody has contributed fully to the debate today. It has been great. All constituents and the people who have signed the petition will see that we are taking their concerns forward.
I thank the Petitions Committee, the thousands of petitioners and the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for introducing the debate this evening. I also thank the many colleagues who have intervened and made contributions. Let me also say that it is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. Many happy returns of the day to you.
This debate is timely. The public are very engaged on this issue; I have received more correspondence on this than on many other parliamentary matters in recent years. We are all in no doubt about the importance of pollinators to our food supply, biodiversity and our economy, but they are in very serious decline. In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that England had seen the greatest decline in the diversity of wild bees of anywhere in Europe. It stated:
“Since 1900, the UK has lost 20 species of bees…A further 35 bee species…are considered to be under threat of extinction.”
This debate is a chance for the Government to reassure the public that those concerns are being taken seriously, as they review the evidence underpinning the 2013 EU ban over the next year. I am pleased that the Government now seem to have an open mind to considering the best available scientific information, given their previous opposition to the ban.
I wish you a very happy birthday, Ms Vaz. Was my hon. Friend as disappointed as I was when the Government did a U-turn on their implementation of the 2013 EC regulations in full? I had a letter on 17 July saying that the regulations would be implemented in full and then, two days later, they decided to approve the usage of two neonics on 5% of the national winter oilseed rape crop area.
Yes I was, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The Government still have not clarified what their current assessment of the latest evidence is and whether they consider it sufficient to support the EU ban. Since the ban, more scientific evidence has appeared emphasising the risk to bees. Examples include a link between the use of neonics and the decline of UK butterfly species, an impact on the pollination that bees provide, resulting in lower-quality apples, as others have mentioned, and emerging evidence that neonics could also affect the soil in which seeds are planted and the wild flowers that grow in it.
The more conservative analysis provided by Professor Charles Godfray and Angela McLean to the Government found a strong scientific consensus that bees exposed to these pesticides in fields suffer harm. However, it could not yet assess whether that harm ultimately leads to falls in overall bee populations. Professor Godfray’s paper highlighted one “gold standard” field study from Sweden, showing significant damage to the bumblebee populations. There was no effect on honeybees, but it is worth noting that honeybees pollinate only 5% to 15% of insect-pollinated crops. I would argue that the lack of a conclusive link with population decline should not, however, be used as a reason for ending EU restrictions. Where are the Government in their judgment of that evidence? Can the Minister give us an insight into how evidence-based policy will be applied?
Everyone here will have sympathy with farmers who are facing considerable difficulties establishing oilseed rape crops in areas under high pressure from cabbage stem flea beetle. In April, it was estimated that 5% of the winter oilseed rape crop had been lost to CSFB.
I appreciate the understandable desire to have every tool available in the toolbox to respond to CSFB, but although 70% of the oilseed rape crop was previously treated with neonics, this is the first harvest without neonics and DEFRA’s statistics for this year’s harvest have shown no change in oilseed rape yield. Waitrose has reported that, since it stopped using the pesticide on oilseed rape in 2012, it has not picked up any differences in yield, other than those attributed to seasonal, field and soil differences. Declines in yields in the eastern region, which have suffered the most from CSFB, have mirrored drops in other areas where that pest is not a problem. It would be good if the Minister said what assessment the Department had made of the effect of restrictions on yield. What amount of loss is considered an emergency warrant authorisation for the use of these pesticides?
There are concerns that farmers are having to resort to pyrethroid, an older pesticide, which is worse for pollinators and honeybees in particular. However, research seems to show that there has not been an increase in the use of that pesticide in the spring, which is the time of the highest risk to bees. The farming press have been publicising guidance from the Rothamsted institute on using sprays only when absolutely necessary, alongside other measures for avoiding flea beetle damage, including reducing cultivations and delaying drilling. Farmers Weekly has even advised farmers that spraying pyrethroid for flea beetles is a “waste of time” and could kill beneficial insects that prey on the pests, as well as fuelling insecticide resistance.
It seems that the farming community has responded to those calls. A Newcastle University study found that 19% of farmers had changed their practices to take account of the non-availability of neonics. New technologies and redesigning crop rotations have been shown to reduce reliance on pesticides by 50%. There has also been valuable work in promoting beneficial insects, some of which are predators for the pests. I hope the Minister will outline what assessment his Department has made of the impact of using alternatives to neonics, which is one of its reasons for opposing the EU ban. What work is the Minister doing with the farming industry to ensure that independent advice is provided to farmers on sustainable pest management approaches?
Although today’s debate has focused on neonics, there are, of course, many reasons for the decline of pollinators, including habitat loss, climate change and pests and diseases. There are many positives about the national pollinator strategy in addressing those causes, most critically the way in which it provides a call to action for many amazing local projects across the country to increase food, shelter and nesting sites. This has rightly tapped into what the Environmental Audit Committee describes as
“an invaluable and committed resource”,
but is this enough? I agree with the Buglife assessment that the national pollinator strategy is more of a framework than a programme. I would like to see more effort from the Government in creating better farm habitats. With three quarters of our land used for agriculture, our agri-environment policy is the best tool we have for effecting large-scale change.
There are concerns about the way in which the new greening requirements of the basic payment scheme are being implemented and there is no guarantee that it will deliver improvements for pollinators and other wildlife in the farmed landscape. What assessment has the Department made of implementation of the greening requirements of the basic payment scheme, particularly its effectiveness in delivering improvements for pollinators in the farmed landscape?
The new countryside stewardship scheme has targeted support for pollinators, but it has been a real worry that while 11,000 farmers have come out of entry-level stewardship agreements, only just over 2,300 applications were made by the deadline for the mid-tier stewardship scheme that replaced them. Will the Government agree to the NFU’s request for an urgent review of the Government’s implementation of the countryside stewardship scheme?
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Ms Vaz—[Interruption.] The Chair has changed. Mr Wilson, in 2013, the last Government were found to be failing in the majority of their environmental commitments, with 30% of UK ecosystem services, such as pollination, found to be in decline. They comprehensively failed to deliver on their biodiversity strategy and their promise at the beginning of that Government to leave the environment in a better condition than they found it. Over the next five years, with their 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity, they have an opportunity to start to put that right.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Wilson—and also for your stealth entrance, which went unnoticed by some Members in the Chamber.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on leading this debate. The scale of the petition on this issue shows just how much people care about it. Many hon. Members have received many emails about it. When I was about to make the decision early in the summer, I received some 50,000 emails and regret that it was impossible to reply to all of them. However, I understand that there is a lot of public concern about the matter.
I commend my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way to so many hon. Members who wanted to speak. I did not anticipate the luxury of having time at the end of this debate, given the numbers present at the beginning; nevertheless, those numbers show just how important this issue is. I have been passionate about it throughout my time as an MP. I worked in the farming industry—we were fruit farmers and we had beehives on the farm—and three years ago I attended an event at which Friends of the Earth launched its “Bees Needs” campaign. It was a great campaign aimed at encouraging schools and people in towns and across the country to invest and help habitats for bees. I may have differences with Friends for the Earth about elements of the neonicotinoid debate, not least the emergency authorisations that I approved earlier this year—I will return to that—but I commend its work to raise awareness of the plight of our bees.
A number of hon. Members have talked about the reasons for the decline. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) suggested that the evidence was absolutely clear that the decline in the bee population could be linked directly to neonicotinoids, and neonicotinoids alone. That is an over-simplification. The reality is that we have seen declining bee populations since the mid-1950s. The reasons for the decline in our bee populations are many, varied and complex. We believe that a large element is loss of habitat, particularly the loss of wild, traditional flowering meadows. We have lost hedgerows, which are an important habitat for bees, particularly bumblebees.
We have also seen problems with disease, and sometimes stress makes bees more susceptible to disease. We have had varroa and hive mites, and a linked problem is that many of our honeybees are imported from countries such as Italy. Those bees are not genetically disposed to survive winters here in the UK so we often have winter losses. Indeed, in Cornwall—my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is nodding—there is a project to reintroduce the native black bee. It is more resilient and produces less sugar, but keeps more of it for itself during the winter months so that it can survive.
Neonicotinoids are a relatively recent group of chemicals so we cannot directly attribute the decline in the bee population just to them. If hon. Members are serious about wanting to help bees, as I am, we must look at the wider picture, which is exactly what we have sought to do with our pollinator strategy. Just a few weeks ago, I launched the implementation plan to start moving that strategy forward. It includes a range of issues, such as commissioning new evidence so that we can better understand the pressures on our bees, and looking at integrated pest management.
Some hon. Members have suggested a different approach that does not rely on pesticides. I absolutely agree. In the decades ahead we are likely to see reduced reliance on chemical pesticides, probably the use of genetic technologies so that we can breed disease resistance directly into crops, and an alternative approach to husbandry, sometimes going back to the skills of rotation, which to some extent have been lost in modern farming, to reduce the build-up of pests, disease and weeds in the first place. We call that integrated pest management, and DEFRA hosts the voluntary initiative organisation, whose primary focus is encouraging the development of integrated management so that over time we will be able to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides.
On neonicotinoids and authorisation of pesticides more generally, it is important to recognise that pesticides are tightly regulated. Active substances are approved at EU level only if they meet safety requirements. The UK is responsible for authorising products containing approved active substances and we carry out thorough assessment of the scientific evidence, drawing on advice from the UK’s independent expert scientists on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which I will return to later. The risks to species such as bees form a key part of the assessment before products are authorised, and the regulatory regime also provides for regular reviews to take account of the latest information and scientific knowledge.
On the specifics of neonicotinoids, the EU introduced restrictions from late 2013 on the use of three neonicotinoids —clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. This debate is nothing if not challenging on diction. The restrictions apply to a wide range of crops that are attractive to bees and cover amateur use—for example, in gardens. Other uses, such as seed treatment for autumn-sown cereals and sugar beet, remain approved. The restrictions are not time limited and remain in place unless the European Commission decides to change them. The Government have implemented the restrictions in full. When imposing them, the Commission acknowledged that the evidence is incomplete and promised to review the science relating to neonicotinoids and bees. That review is now under way and provides an important opportunity to produce an up-to-date assessment of all the scientific evidence. The European Food Safety Authority is carrying out the review and we anticipate that it will conclude its work next summer. The UK will contribute fully to the review as it progresses. We have said throughout that we want it to be firmly grounded on a strengthened scientific evidence base.
The shadow Minister mentioned the very good paper by Professor Charles Godfray and others, which was published in September and was a restatement of all the recent evidence on neonicotinoid insecticides and their effect on pollinators. I commend that report to any hon. Member interested in this issue. It is a very thorough examination of all the research that has been done—laboratory research that looks at the impact on bees of acute poisoning through very high levels of neonicotinoids, but also the beginnings of some of the field trials that have been taking place. There was an interesting field trial in Sweden, for instance. The people involved believed that there could be an impact on bumblebee populations, but not necessarily on honeybee populations.
The paper concludes that this is a very complex issue. Some of the work in Canada, for instance, concludes that there is no big impact on bee populations. However, the big conclusion from the paper is that we need more field-scale trials. That is why the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is at the moment in the UK doing a very large, comprehensive trial, the results of which we should have next spring, and those results will feed into the review currently being carried out by EFSA. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is also doing work in other European countries, so that we can better understand this disease.
Our position is that we will not remove the existing restrictions if the evidence points to the fact that those restrictions should remain. A number of hon. Members have talked about the precautionary principle. We are adopting a precautionary, evidence-based principle. We are very clear, though, that it should be a precautionary principle based on an assessment of risk, not theoretical hazard. That is where sometimes we have a difference of opinion with other European countries, because some of them look just at theoretical hazard rather than a true assessment of risk.
I want to turn now to the emergency authorisations that we made earlier this year, because this is a crucial point. If we want to make a precautionary restriction work, it is essential that we allow there to be some use in extreme cases—some use of emergency authorisations. That is now an established approach that we have. If we want a precautionary approach, over time fewer pesticides will be available on general licence, but as pesticides are removed as a precaution, it is important that we make available the opportunity to grant emergency authorisations. Otherwise we have all sorts of unintended consequences. We force farmers to start to use other chemicals that perhaps have escaped the attention of the scientific community, but are even more damaging. For instance, when the ban first came in, there was some evidence of a shift to using another chemical, called Mesurol, which was dangerous to birds. We then moved to ban that chemical, so we have to consider unintended consequences. We also have to consider the problem of resistance building up to other vital insecticides. For instance, there was growing resistance to overuse of pyrethroids. That is an issue to which we have to be sensitive.
To assess applications for emergency authorisations, we have a group of experts called the Expert Committee on Pesticides. That is a group of 15 academics. They are entomologists, toxicologists, professors and doctors, with unrivalled expertise in pesticides, toxicology and the environment. They give us advice on the applications that we receive for emergency authorisations.
It might be worth my pointing out that the use of emergency authorisations has grown in line with the withdrawal of pesticides for use on a general licence. In 2012, member states of the European Union granted a total of 193 emergency authorisations. Just 14 were from the UK in that year, making 7% of the total. In 2015, the number of emergency authorisations in the EU grew to 414, but only 11 emergency authorisations were granted in the UK, representing just 3% of all emergency authorisations made in the European Union. I therefore put it to hon. Members that far from being cavalier about this, the UK has a proven track record of showing more caution and being more thorough in the way it assesses those applications. The growth in applications is no surprise, because if products are withdrawn from the market, there will be an increase in the number of emergency authorisations.
Has my hon. Friend the Minister any idea, in forecast terms, when we might know definitively what is killing off our bee population?
My general experience of these things is that the more science we have, the more evidence gaps get identified, so we never actually have a perfect picture and all we can ever do is make the best judgment we can with the science that we have. However, I do believe that much of the work that is being done—for instance, by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology—will mean a big increase and big improvement in our understanding of neonicotinoids in the future. Some of the work that we are commissioning as part of our national pollinator strategy will also assist in that process.
I want to turn now to the specific emergency authorisations in relation to the three neonicotinoids. We had two applications: one for Cruiser and one for Modesto; they were the products in question. The first application from the National Farmers Union asked for an authorisation covering 79% of the area of England. The conclusion, which was published, of the Expert Committee on Pesticides was that although it acknowledged that there was a problem with cabbage stem flea beetle in particular that could not be controlled by other means, it believed that an authorisation covering 79% of the country did not satisfy the requirement of its being strictly confined and restricted. For that reason, it recommended refusal of the first application. I accepted that: I refused the first application.
There was subsequently a second application from the NFU, bringing much more detailed evidence from agronomists of the impact on the ground of cabbage stem flea beetle in particular, county by county. On the basis of that, it put in an application for use over 5% of the English area, which roughly represented the area of Suffolk, which had suffered particularly badly. The Expert Committee on Pesticides assessed that second application and concluded that it satisfied all the requirements, so it recommended that we approve that emergency authorisation and that is what we did.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain whether we are doing impact assessments that will directly look, in terms of an evidence base, at whether the four counties that have been given an exemption have in fact suffered greater degradation of their bee population, because that gives us a perfect example to look at? From talking to beekeepers, it appears that they have not experienced that, so are we looking at the results before last year and after these past 120 days in 2015?
One point that I will make to my hon. Friend is this. We have granted an authorisation for 5% of the area; it is predominantly in Suffolk, but also in the surrounding counties. I was going to come on to this point, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bath also raised it. It is actually quite difficult to get a scientifically robust evidence base when one has a mixture of fields around. Far more important is the work being done by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. That is scientifically robust; the right controls are in place; and we will get a much clearer picture.
I want to move on to some of the points made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who was here earlier, made a point about the benefits of spraying in the evening. He is absolutely right. When I worked in the industry as a farmer, it was always good practice to ensure that one sprayed at night, for two reasons. There tends to be a slightly more still environment—less wind and less drift—but also, crucially, bees do eventually go to bed. If people spray in the evening, most of them will have returned to their hives, so that is good advice, and advice that is pushed strongly by the voluntary initiative that I mentioned.
The chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), raised the issue of the publication of minutes. I know that it was a criticism made of us that we were trying to hide something. Let me be clear: we were hiding nothing. The summary of the minutes of the 20 May meeting, which was the first one—the one at which the first application was discussed—was actually published on 7 July, and the detailed record of the 7 July meeting, the second meeting, was actually published on 24 September. There is no conspiracy reason for the delay in that publication; it is simply that the subsequent meeting where the minutes were agreed by the ECP took place on 22 September. They had their minutes, they agreed the minutes and they published them thereafter. There is no attempt on the part of the Government to hide anything; the reasons for the authorisations are there and clear for all to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) asked whether chemicals might come off seed treatments and end up in hedges. She is right; concern has been expressed in some of the science that there may be leaching, which may affect wildflowers in hedges. I am sure that that is something that the European Food Safety Authority will look at as part of its evidence.
I was also pleased to hear mention of the fact that the APPG on bees will have its own apiary. In the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have our own hive on the roof of Nobel House, and we harvested our first honey this year.
Does not what the Minister has said about beekeeping in DEFRA underscore the fact that this is not just a rural issue, but an urban and suburban one? It affects my constituents in Kingston and Surbiton just as much as it does his constituents who live in rural areas. Our pollinator strategy needs to deal with the countryside, towns, cities and suburbs.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I heard one of the most distressing anecdotes I have ever heard on the matter when I attended a Friends of the Earth event three years ago. Somebody at the event talked about an old brick wall adjacent to a garage in an urban area, which was—excuse the pun— a hive of activity, from which, at a particular time of year, all the solitary bumblebees who made their home in it would emerge. The local wildlife trust told people in its newsletter that if they went to the wall at the beginning of the summer, they would see all those bees emerging, which would be a sight to behold. When everyone went there, however, they found that the owners of the garage, completely oblivious to the sanctuary that it offered to the bumblebees, had knocked the wall down to rebuild the garage. Raising awareness of the fact that even things such as stone walls are important habitats is absolutely crucial.
I want to move on to a few of the other things that have been mentioned. Several hon. Members have asked why we are doing worse than other countries, and I think a lot of that might be down to the intensification of our farming during the second part of the 20th century. In addition, we cannot dictate how many people will be willing to become beekeepers. Several hon. Members mentioned the fact that oilseed rape yields increased in 2014 by 16%, but the point is that during 2014, seeds that had been treated with neonicotinoids were still being used. It is too early to predict the impact of the loss of those chemicals on yields. The situation is complex, because when people suffer severe crop damage as a result of cabbage stem flea beetle, they often go on, effectively, to replant the crop.
The British Beekeepers Association has suggested that the 30% drop in honey yields has been predominantly down to poor weather. I want to say a little bit about the study that revealed that if bumblebees were exposed to neonicotinoids, there would be fewer seeds in apples. Although we think that that is useful evidence, we do not think it necessarily proves a direct correlation between the loss of those seeds and the use of neonicotinoids.
Finally, I want to move on to some of the key points made by the shadow Minister. I believe I have covered many of the points he made, but I want to mention our countryside stewardship scheme. We have had strong uptake of the pollinator package, which we made clear would be a key part of that scheme. The number of applications this year was slightly below what we expected—that is not surprising, given the difficulties we had with the computer—but not that far below; we expected around 3,000 applications, and we had around 2,500. We will work to see whether we can improve uptake next year by getting a simpler application process online so that farmers can be guided to the right measures and put together agreements more easily. If we can get agreement from the European Union to simplify some of the over-burdensome regulation and reporting requirements that it insists on, I hope we will also be able to remove some of the bureaucracy from the schemes. They have been very successful and they have got a strong track record, and we would like to see more of them taken up.
First, I thank Elizabeth St.Clair, who tabled the petition on the petitions section of the Parliament website, and the 90,000-plus people who signed it. It says a great deal for democracy in this country that people’s views are heard, listened to and responded to by the Government. I also say a massive “thank you” to the Minister for his comprehensive answer to an awful lot of questions and speeches. I also thank all the Members who put forward their views and intervened, including the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith).
One thing is absolutely clear: we cannot allow the number of bees in our country to keep falling. We have heard about the range of measures that the Government are looking at to stop that trend, but we need more information and much more research. I hope that the Government will come before the House again after the publication in the summer of the European journal and the research, so that we can find out the reasons for the decline in the bee population. Neonics are a part of that, but it is a wider problem. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank all hon. Members for turning up and I thank the 90,000 people who signed the petition. I hope that more people will bring forward petitions in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 104796 relating to the use of neonicotinoids on crops.