[Relevant documents: e-petition 563943, Continue the ban on the use of Neonicotinoids, and e-petition 569214, Overturn the decision to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government approval for the use of neonicotinoids and the impact on bees.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. First, I declare an interest, in that my family keep bees on our farm in north Cornwall. I am also a patron of Pollenize, which is a brilliant beekeeping community interest company in Plymouth, and I can tell Members that all the honey it produces is delicious.
I bloody love bees. Bees might be small creatures, but their contribution to nature and to food production is huge. Up to three quarters of crop species are pollinated by bees and other pollinators. Bees are a symbol of a healthy environment. Bees, whether honeybees or bumblebees, are iconic British species, too. They are a weathervane species, against which we can chart nature’s recovery or decline.
For me, bee health is non-negotiable. We are in the middle of a climate and ecological crisis. That means that we must not only act faster to cut carbon and do so fairly, creating green jobs; we must also protect nature, and that means taking difficult decisions to protect our natural world. We will never be nature positive if we dodge the difficult decisions or turn a blind eye to our role in the erosion of nature.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the legal requirements in the Environment Act 2021 to halt species loss by 2030 will not be worth the paper they are written on if, at the first hurdle, the Government actually fail and give a licence to something that their own scientific advisers are advising against?
I thank the hon. Lady for summing up my entire speech in one pithy intervention. She is absolutely correct, and I will seek to explain why, using more words, over the next 10 minutes or so.
Bees are not only in more danger every year; they are also more important every year. According to the UN, the volume of agricultural production dependent on pollinators has increased globally by 300% in the past 50 years. The UN also found that greater pollinator density results in better crop yields, so it is also good for farmers. That is why this is such an important and urgent debate, because bee health in this country is not getting better; it is getting worse. Banning bee-killing pesticides will not on its own reverse the decline in bee populations, but if we cannot deal with this most apparent of ills, how will we deal with the hundreds of more difficult decisions that must follow in relation to protecting habitats and providing a guide to bee recovery?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and very well attended debate. Will he join me in thanking and congratulating the local authorities across this country, including Kent County Council, that have put together plans, such as Kent’s Plan Bee, to protect and enhance our bee populations and to do what they can to protect the natural environment across their counties?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I agree with what she says. Local government has a really significant role in nature restoration, and bee recovery in particular, because Ministers might be able to set the strategic framework, but it will be local government delivering that on the ground in all our communities. I commend Kent for the work that it is doing.
I am grateful to Buglife, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts nationally, and the Devon Wildlife Trust locally, for their help in preparing for this debate. The House of Commons Library has also been superb, producing a great briefing note. I am also grateful to hon. Members from all parties for stopping me so frequently over the past week or so to talk about bees and for asking me to mention their particular concerns in this debate. I hope that my speech will convey the strength of their feeling, on a cross-party basis.
I want to do three things. First, I want to make the case for the ban on bee-killing pesticides to be restored—no ifs or buts. Secondly, I want to challenge the Minister and the industry to do more to help sugar beet farmers, some of whom face financial losses and real difficulties because of aphids. Thirdly, I want to argue that in the middle of a climate and nature emergency, future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides must be subject to a parliamentary vote, rather than being quietly snuck out by Ministers.
Bee species and populations are in decline. Research suggests that a third of the UK bee population is thought to have vanished in the last 10 years, and since 1900 the UK has lost 13 out of 35 native bee species. Those are frightening figures, and the decline is continuing. However, I am concerned that, instead of taking meaningful action to protect our bees, the Government have chosen to temporarily lift the ban on Cruiser SB, a neonicotinoid pesticide that is banned under UK law except for certain emergency authorisations. That is not just a step in the wrong direction for our bees; it is a dramatic erosion of our steps towards being a net zero, nature-positive country.
One teaspoon of neonicotinoid is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees, equivalent to four lorry loads, according to Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex. We need more research on the true effects of neonicotinoids on bee populations—not just on every species but on the different types of bee within a population. In particular, beekeepers are reporting that, in areas where neonicotinoids have been used in the past, the behaviour of queens is different from that of worker bees, for instance. More research is needed.
This is not the first time that we have discussed bees. Indeed, I have discussed them many times with the Minister, who is in her place. On 16 December last year, she told the House of Commons that there is a
“growing weight of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators.”
I agree. The chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that neonic use must be kept to an “absolute minimum” to address bee decline. I agree. However, the Government have not stuck to those words in the actions that they have taken.
When we left the EU, the Government promised to follow the science on bee-killing pesticides. They said that their decisions about emergency authorisations would be guided by two expert bodies, the Health and Safety Executive and the expert committee on pesticides. On 6 September 2021, the Minister told the Commons:
“Decisions on pesticide authorisation are based on expert assessment by the Health and Safety Executive.”
Lord Goldsmith gave the same commitment, word for word, to the Lords on 27 September.
Those words, however, have not rung true in actions. In January last year, both expert bodies recommended that emergency authorisations for neonic bee-killing pesticides should not be given for sugar beets. The expert committee on pesticides said:
“The requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met.”
It said that the risk to bees and freshwater biodiversity outweighed the benefit to sugar beets. That is important. The Health and Safety Executive came to a similar conclusion.
DEFRA has therefore lifted a ban on neonics against the overwhelming advice of its own expert bodies, by which it said it would be guided. That suggests that the decision was a political one, not a scientific one.
I know that some people will look at donations from big sugar to the governing party, but I do not subscribe to that argument. I think that it is more simple than that: when given the option to take bee health more seriously, the Government chose not to. It is not a bigger conspiracy than that. They simply chose not to act to support bee health in the way that they could have done. That sets a dangerous precedent. Neonics are largely banned in this country, but that does not mean anything if the Government are willing to authorise emergency use in circumstances that, frankly, are not emergencies.
I turn now to my asks. First, we know that 12 other European countries have decided to authorise neonics this year, but it is slightly odd that such a hard Brexit Government now hide behind what Europe does. Indeed, the Prime Minister promised to deliver a green Brexit, and the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said in 2018 that Britain would demonstrate “global leadership” on environmental policy after Brexit. Why are we not leading when it comes to saving bees and other essential pollinators?
A commitment to support biodiversity must be delivered through action, not words or press releases. I want the ban on bee-killing pesticides restored and locked in. To do that, we need to look carefully at what alternatives are available to support sugar beet farmers.
Having secured the debate, my hon. Friend must be positively buzzing. I speak as a Mancunian—the bee, of course, being a historic symbol of Manchester. I now live in Frodsham, in my constituency, and the bee is also a symbol of Frodsham because the vicar of Frodsham, Rev. William Charles Cotton, was a beekeeper. I agree very much with my hon. Friend that the Government need to take control now and put deeds and actions, not just fine words, into play to save our bees and nature.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention—perhaps less so for his bee related joke, which I have managed to avoid in my remarks. He is right about the importance that bee populations have to local people, not just beekeepers. Bees are an iconic species—they are built into the fabric of our identity—and because of that, what happens to bees is important not just to scientists, beekeepers and honey lovers but to our entire country.
My hon. Friend is making a great speech setting out this issue. Does he agree that our constituents are really concerned about this issue and do not understand the Government’s reasoning? As far as they are concerned, bees need to be protected, and that must include this issue. Can I also put a plug in for another reverend, Rev. Tom Jamieson in my constituency, who works with an organisation called North East Young Dads and Lads, which is building links and bonds through beekeeping?
I agree with my hon. Friend about how important bees are, but I also agree with her that people do not understand why this is happening. This emergency authorisation is important to the public. Sneaking it out does the Government no favours because it suggests that they do not have a strong argument in favour of its validity. If the case has not been made, I am afraid that the public will be left with only one conclusion, which is that the Government are simply not in favour of bee health, as I think the majority of the British public are.
I will now turn to sugar beet farmers in particular, nearly all of whom are located in the east of England. I want to make sure they are properly supported, because I do not doubt that they have had a difficult time in recent years owing to a number of issues affecting their crop. Sugar is a big business, and it is a high-value crop. British Sugar—one of the big sugar firms that dominate the market—recorded a £100 million profit in 2020. It is big business and I refuse to believe that this granulated money-making machine is unable to provide sugar beet farmers with a fairer deal to help and support them against crop failures. Indeed, the latest sugar contracts put in place over the past 12 months offer considerably more support to sugar beet farmers, a point that I will return to later.
I know that the Minister is keen to explore gene editing to make sugar beet more resistant. Although I am not a fan of the lack of proper regulation and oversight of gene editing that she proposes, I know that DEFRA is quite keen on it, and often cites sugar beet as an example of a target species for gene editing. The Government themselves have said that they expect the sugar beet industry to no longer rely on bee-killing neonicotinoids by 2023—next year—through the development of pest-resistant varieties and greater use of integrated pest management.
As a former lead for Labour on farming, I have spoken up for our farmers when Government policy on subsidy reform, labour or trade deals harms them, but I also feel we need to speak up for their environmental commitments, in particular the National Farmers Union’s hard-won plan to hit net zero by 2040. That is an ambitious policy that means changing the way in which farming works to be more sustainable, in terms of not just carbon but water use, soil health, chemicals and, in particular, nature recovery. We cannot have Ministers speaking of nature recovery on the one hand, while on the other greenlighting the use of bee-killing pesticides, whether as a spray or as a seed treatment, as they have in this case.
That brings me to my main ask of Ministers. I believe that the Government do not have the support of the public, the majority of beekeepers and farmers, or all their own MPs in authorising the use of bee-killing pesticides. As such, my proposal to the Minister is that future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides should be subject to a parliamentary vote, in which MPs would have a genuine opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of using neonicotinoids. I suspect that the Minister would insist on a hard three-line Conservative Whip on such a Bill. Sitting as I am next to the Labour Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), I would not want to guess what we would do in that situation, but I do believe that MPs would think carefully about what to do. Saving the bees is such an important topic, but so is supporting our farmers, so MPs would consider that decision carefully, and the consequences of their votes would be carried by Members of Parliament with a responsibility to persuade and to explain and listen to their constituents. The climate and nature emergency is one of the defining issues of our time. Responding to it by making it worse should require a democratic mandate and robust parliamentary scrutiny, because we should be trying to resolve it and remove those problems.
I hope that the Minister will set out how she intends to invest in more robust scientific research to monitor the use of bee-killing pesticides by farmers and big sugar, as well as better protections against the need for it. What estimates has she made of how many bees and pollinators will be killed this year by authorisation of these pesticides? What is her plan for nature recovery in those areas where the neonicotinoid Cruiser SB will be used this year? What monitoring will be in place over the next five years to understand fully the impact on bee and pollinator populations, not just in the fields where the pesticide has been used on crops but, importantly, in hedgerows and areas around them? What steps will she take to prevent the active ingredient of the pesticide, as described by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust,
“leaching…from the crop into wildflowers in and around the field margins”?
Some of the protections that have been built into the derogation are welcome. Raising the expected aphid incident level from a projected 7% to 19% before permitting the use of a treated seed is a welcome measure, as is the 32-month ban—up from 22 months last year—on growing flowering crops in fields where treated sugar beet has been grown, but they do not go far enough to justify the use of the pesticides. Frankly, I do not want bee-killing pesticides ever to be used.
If the Minister’s argument is that they are to be used only in emergencies, I want to challenge the assumption that this is an emergency. I expect the Minister will claim that there is no alternative to the authorisation of neonicotinoids. I expect she will say that UK sugar supplies will plummet, sugar beet farmers will suffer hugely and that the nation would be forced to import more from abroad, from countries where neonicotinoids are used.
I want to refer DEFRA to its own modelling, which says that predicted losses from sugar beet this year would have been under £10 million, even if no neonicotinoids were used. That is assuming disease rates of more than double of those predicted last year. It also assumes that farmers would not have used alternative mitigation strategies, as we know many of them have. The Government have themselves said that they expect the sugar beet industry no longer to rely on bee-killing chemicals by next year, through the development of pest-resistant varieties and integrated pest management.
That is welcome but, if it is coming, it will not all come at once. We know that there are strategies that have been put in place this year. Is it really an emergency? I want to see sugar beet farmers supported, but I do not believe that the Government have done enough to demonstrate that this is an emergency. Indeed, the steps that the sugar beet industry—British Sugar and the growers—has put in place have helped the pain share, gain share.
The five tests that the Government use to define an emergency are woolly, and have been hidden away in assessments on the DEFRA website, rather than put in the public domain. That has done the Government no favours. That is why an annual parliamentary vote on the issue is important. We are in a climate and ecological emergency, but I do not believe we are in a sugar beet emergency. I support the farmers. Indeed, they are getting more support this year. That is why it is important that we put the priority correctly on bees and nature. I challenge the Minister to say that now is the time to update the national pollinator strategy, which runs until 2024. It needs updating sooner than 2024, and I would be grateful if the Minister could look carefully at bringing that forward, with a proper consultation on how more ambitious we can be to protect bees and pollinators.
I look forward to other contributions. We all love bees and we all want to back our farmers. The only question is how to do that. The issue is hugely symbolic, not just because bees matter but because it represents one of the first challenges that we have faced since the passing of the Environment Act—whether we can achieve a net zero, nature-positive future. Being nature positive means more than planting a few trees; it means taking tough decisions that may be unpopular with some, because the benefits to nature outweigh the costs to some businesses. If we fall at such an early hurdle, on a species as popular as bees, how will we ever take the necessary steps to realise a future where England’s green and pleasant lands are truly sustainable?
That is why we must take a stand against the use of bee-killing pesticides. I will also say this in political terms, and I make my intention clear. If the Government want to continue to use bee-killing pesticides, we must make it politically impossible for them to do so. We must ensure that the public know that this is an annual decision. MPs from all parties must be clear with their constituents on whether they support it. If we are to protect and save bees, we need to do more than tweet about it—although I do that a lot. We need to do more than say the words; we need to ensure there is action. We need an annual moment of action. If we do not have that, we will not secure the net-zero, nature-positive future. Let us save the bees. Our planet depends on it.
There are at least 11 Members seeking to participate. There are only two Front-Bench winding-up speeches. By my reckoning, we have about 45 minutes. Do the maths. I am not going to put a time limit on speeches, but if you take more than four minutes, somebody is not going to get in. I call Sir Robert Goodwill.
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for raising this topic. This is a debate we need to have, and we need to focus on the facts.
I should declare that I am a farmer, though not a sugar beet farmer. I am very fond of bees, not least because we grow field beans on our farm and we understand the role of pollinators. We should not dispute the fact that neonicotinoids are toxic to bees, although in a slightly more complex way than with other toxins—the behaviour of bees can be affected, which can result in hives failing to survive.
No farmer likes using pesticides; they are expensive and have an effect on the environment. In many crops, such as wheat, which can be affected by aphids, the farmer waits until a threshold of aphid attack is reached before using the sprays. A certain degree of predation can be coped with as the aphids feed on the plant and suck the sap. However, although winter barley can have an aphid attack in the growing season, it is also affected by a disease called barley yellow dwarf virus, which is spread by a virus vector. Farmers spray their barley crop in the autumn not because a threshold of aphids has been reached, but because they need to prevent the virus from being spread. The same situation occurs with sugar beet.
The sugar beet virus yellows is caused by three viruses—beet yellows virus, beet mild yellowing virus and beet chlorosis virus—and is spread by an aphid vector. It is a bit like mosquitoes spreading malaria—one bite is enough to infect the plant. Farmers need to protect the crop. In a bad year, the crop can be affected up to as much as 30% on the yield, which is sufficient to make it unviable to grow.
Sugar beet is a biennial crop. It does not flower in the first year. Using a seed dressing when planting the seed—we are not talking about spraying it over the crop and bees that are flying around being affected—renders the plant toxic at that critical stage so that if an aphid feeds on the plant, it dies and does not spread the virus still further. It is our old friend myzus persicae, the peach-potato aphid, that spreads the virus.
This is not a problem only in the UK. Ten European Union countries have applied for similar derogations. France has a derogation that runs until 2023. There are alternatives, but, as the French have said, none of them works well enough on their own compared with the seed treatment. Some may not be good for the environment either. For example, the virus overwinters on many flowering weeds. Many farmers might be discouraged from putting in flower margins around their fields because that could overwinter the virus, which could then be spread into the crop. As farmers, we want our flower margins and a wide diversity on the crop.
I believe that the derogation is sensible. The biennial nature of sugar beet means that we do not have bees feeding on the pollen and nectar on the sugar beet crop in the same way that they would on a crop such as field beans, which is an annual crop.
We have seen a massive decline in oilseed rape in this country because we have lost the same type of seed treatment that controls the cabbage stem flea beetle. It is not a virus vector, but at the very early stage, when the first two cotyledon leaves emerge, the cabbage stem flea beetle will decimate the crop. Many farmers have stopped growing oil seed rape. We are into the law of unintended consequences, because oilseed rape is a massive source of pollen and nectar for the very bees we want to encourage. We need to be very careful that we do not just go with emotion. We all love bees and want to protect them, but we need to ensure that we have a diversity of break crops. As part of our new environmental land management scheme, we want to have more margins, more wildflowers and more diversity, but if we lose our two main break crops in the east of England—sugar beet and oilseed rape—it could unfortunately result in the opposite happening.
Oilseed rape is drilled in mid-August, grows through the winter and does not flower until the following spring, when the residues are not sufficient—I think scientists would make this point—to cause problems for bees. We need to be very careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it is sensible for the Government to allow a derogation, as 10 EU countries have done, to allow this to happen. I think that that will secure the viability of the UK sugar beet industry and not affect bees. It would be sensible to do more research as we put in place the derogations, which, by the way, are needed only if we have a mild winter and aphids over the winter. I would support that.
As I say, I am a great champion of bees, but many of the emails I get do not really take account of the science. We need to look at the science and the evidence, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will look at the science and realise that this is a proportionate change and will help the sugar beet industry in the UK. We can import sugar, and we can stop producing sugar in this country, but I think it is important that we do things in a way that is proportionate and that also does not undermine our bee populations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate.
I would like to make it clear that I have enormous sympathy for farmers, who have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years in responding to covid, Brexit and increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events, and I completely understand their determination to protect their crops and livelihoods. None the less, I am profoundly concerned about the Government’s emergency authorisation of Cruiser SB for 2022 to tackle the threat of yellow virus. Thiamethoxam is a banned substance for a reason, and this decision is a retrograde move. It is utterly at odds with the Government’s legal requirement to halt species loss by 2030, as set out in the Environment Act. With COP15, the global biodiversity summit, just months away, the Government should be leading from the front to protect and restore nature, not giving a green light to the use of deadly toxins.
Many Members have set out the overwhelming scientific evidence of the harm caused by these pesticides, and I would like to refer them back to December 2020, when I asked DEFRA what assessment had been made of the potential environmental effects of approving Cruiser SB neonic in 2021. As it transpires, the neonic was not used last year, because an especially cold winter led to a fall in aphid numbers. None the less, the then Minister’s reply assured me that the advice of the HSE and the expert committee on pesticides was being sought, and it implied that it would be respected. The Government’s subsequent and continued disregard for the evidence presented by the very experts they have appointed is, at best, mysterious and, at worst, utterly shameful.
I would also like to remind colleagues of the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings in its 2013 report, “Pollinators and Pesticides”. I sat on that Committee and still do, and I particularly recall this recommendation:
“Defra policy on pesticides must be evidence-based. Where the available scientific evidence is either incomplete or contradictory, Defra must apply the precautionary principle.”
The Government’s decision to approve the use of this neonic flies in the face of the evidence we do have, and it is not consistent with a precautionary approach.
The Government should be giving legal protection to bees and other pollinators. As it stands, pre-approval tests for pesticides focus only on the short-term effects on honeybees, ignoring the long-term effects of pesticides on other wild pollinators altogether—the bumblebees, beetles and moths on which we rely. An amendment to the Environment Act sought to rectify that omission but, sadly, did not win Government support. The Minister could right that wrong now and commit to make consideration of the long-term impacts of the UK’s pesticide use on pollinators a mandatory requirement for the assessment process. That would be an important first step towards embracing a new approach to farming and pest management that works in harmony with nature, not against it.
The Government should be investing in innovative and non-chemical alternatives to pest management, including better forecasting, crop rotation, natural predators and the use of resistant varieties, while at the same time supporting farmers to make the transition away from neonics. That could be done, for example, via the sustainable farming incentive in England and by supporting nature-friendly pest control.
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the Secretary of State’s reply to a cross-party letter that I co-ordinated last year, in which he assured me that
“emergency authorisations for pesticides are only granted in exceptional circumstances where diseases or pests cannot be controlled by any other reasonable means.”
What steps have the Government taken over the last 12 months to support farmers to invest in those other reasonable control measures? I would love to know the details of that. Will the Minister stop putting pollinators in persistent danger? Will she cancel the approval and instead spend the next 12 months ensuring that farmers can access non-chemical alternatives? Will she commit to a national action plan to end the use of pesticides, putting UK nature on a genuine path to recovery? We are all saying how much we like bees—we heard from the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) how much he likes bees—but unless we are prepared to take action to make meaningful change, those are just empty words. With a nature and environmental crisis coming down the line at us, we cannot afford to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing forward the debate. I had a rather lengthy speech prepared, but I will raise just a few points to allow others to contribute. However, please do not interpret my brevity as indicating a lack of passion on this issue.
First, it is not just bees that are affected by neonicotinoids; it is also moths and butterflies, which play an equally important role in natural habitats and the food supply by pollinating crops and wild plants. Secondly, since the Government agreed to the moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, further studies have been published that confirm that neonics can be damaging to pollinators without being fatal. The chemicals may not necessarily result in death, but the impact on the nervous system and the brain can make it difficult for such insects to function, such as the queen bee. That allows the assertion to be made that these chemicals do not kill pollinators, but that is incorrect.
In addition to those unintended consequences, there are further reasons to ban the use of neonicotinoids, including the contamination of the environment and the use of alternatives. Research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported that the persistence of neonics in soil and water is causing large-scale adverse effects on pollinators, and concluded by saying that the organisation is still discovering the harmful effects of neonics.
Research published by Jactel, Verheggen, Thiéry et al in 2019 determined that an effective alternative to neonics was available in 96% of the 2,968 case studies analysed. In 89%, neonics could be replaced with one non-chemical alternative, including micro-organisms, semi-chemicals or surface coating of seed. The relevance of that lies in the pests’ feeding habits. Leaf and flower feeders are easier to control with non-chemical methods, whereas wood and root feeders are more difficult to manage in the same way. The conclusion is that non-chemical alternatives to neonics do exist, but it will take Her Majesty’s Government to promote them through regulation and funding.
The justification for the application of a previous derogation in 2020 was that 25% of the national crop of sugar beet was lost, resulting in a loss of over £65 million for the growers and processors. However, in 2013, the Environmental Audit Committee, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and I served on, published its “Pollinators and Pesticides” report, which made a very clear recommendation:
“Economic considerations should not form part of environmental risk management decision making, but rather should be a function of a distinct and transparent subsequent political process.”
That approach now appears to have been ignored.
For many years, people have said that DEFRA is not taking a sufficiently precautionary approach, so I appeal to the Minister today: please do not make this further evidence of that assertion true.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing forward this important debate and raising awareness about decisions that are being made in secret—that is the feeling of many of my constituents who have written to me about bees. We may be an urban constituency, but we have beehives on the Granville Road allotments and on Albert Road. We have delicious honey from Southfields, which I have every year.
There is interest in this debate across the country for many reasons. I am concerned about this decision—not only because of the immediate impact it will have on the environment, but because of the way it is being made and what that shows about the attitude towards the Environment Act 2021. I was on the Bill Committee, and the ink is only just dry on the Act, but it is already being set aside. I am also concerned by the attitude towards expert advice. We should be following the science, but this decision has not done that.
In terms of the use of neonicotinoids, I am concerned about the damage to bees and aquatic life and about the damage from the run-off. I am concerned that support for farmers has not been sufficiently taken into account, because it does exist. I am concerned about abandoning the precautionary principle, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members. It is absolutely fundamental to our environmental decision making, but if it is not even being put in place now, after we have passed the Environment Act, what will happen to it in the future? We need to reassert the precautionary approach.
The Government’s case rests on two justifications. First, it rests on the financial impact on sugar beet farmers, and I absolutely sympathise with and understand their situation at the moment. However, the latest contracts between growers and British Sugar include an insurance scheme to offset possible losses due to the occurrence of the virus yellows. That needs to be considered in the context of the case for need, because the impact of the financial loss to sugar beet farmers has been taken into consideration.
Secondly, I am sure the Minister and the Government will say that there is a very limited use for this insecticide, that it will not be used on flowering plants and that there will be restrictions on what can be grown in contaminated soil for 32 months. Although I welcome those restrictions, I think the Government should go further. The UK expert committee on pesticides considered exactly this question and concluded that the environmental risk—especially of run-off into water and back into animals and other flowering plants in surrounding areas—is too great. When it met on 21 September 2021, the committee concluded that the requirements for emergency authorisation had not been met and that it cannot support the recommendation.
The committee was specifically asked to look into the risk to honeybees and any other additional measures that could be implemented to mitigate that risk. Instead of saying that there was a very low impact on honeybees—which there was, directly—and that additional measures could be implemented to mitigate that risk, the committee said no, it could not recommend that the ban be lifted. It said:
“There is new evidence regarding the risk from neonicotinoids globally which adds to the weight of evidence of adverse impact on honeybee behaviour and demonstrated negative impacts on bee colonies…Further evidence has been published on the occurrence of thiamethoxam in honey and of adverse effects on other bee species, and these effects should be considered in addition to chronic effects on honeybees…None of the suggested mitigation measures”,
which I am sure the Minister will be laying out, and which I have been given in response to questions,
“protected off-crop areas and, if the authorisation is granted, further consideration needs to be given to how this could impact on growers involved in agri-environmental schemes which involved planting flowering margins.”
The committee’s conclusion was that it is
“unable to support an emergency authorisation under Article 53 of Regulation 1107/2009”
because of the reasons laid out by the Health and Safety Executive,
“the expected off-crop environmental effects and the impact of grower contract changes on the trigger threshold for use.”
It is absolutely unacceptable that the Government say they will take into account expert panels, set up an expert panel, have the panel met in good time—at the same time as we are hosting COP26 and passing the Environment Act, which has the precautionary impact built in—and then disregard it straightaway.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points and an impassioned speech. It is important that we clearly state that the science has been set out and the panel has been spoken to, but that the Government are being not only not cautious but reckless in their dismissal of the panel’s views.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
I could go on longer about the precautionary principle, but I do not have enough time. However, it was set out at the 1992 Rio conference on the environment, and it is absolutely essential that we consider it.
The impact on bees has been well documented. Neonicotinoids can damage the receptors to the insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis and affecting learning, feeding, foraging and reproduction, eventually killing the insect. What the public want is for us to save the bees, save our environment and increase biodiversity.
I will conclude with some questions to the Minister. Why did she disregard the advice of the expert panel? What is she doing to stop the effect of run-off if the ban is lifted and neonicotinoids are used? What support is she giving to enable sugar beet farmers to tackle virus yellows without the use of neonicotinoids, rather than coming back year by year asking to lift this ban? What research is she doing into the declining bee population in the UK, and how can we save bees instead of killing them? What research is being done on the effect of neonicotinoids on bees in particular and on the effect of lifting the ban on or around affected fields? When will the Government update the pollinator strategy? And can we have an annual vote on lifting any bans, so that we can absolutely be held to account for decisions we make that have such a big impact on the environment?
I think we can all agree on three things: that bees are very important and we should protect them; that we have all eaten something containing sugar in the last 24 hours; and that the Government have to consider competing risks and balance them carefully. Given the accepted importance of bees, the Government have developed the pollinator strategy. Their new environmental land management schemes for farmers will encourage the growing of areas in which bees can find safe habitat, increase the number of other areas for habitat for bees, increase public awareness of the needs of bees and increase the understanding of health and disease in bees, so that we can manage those more effectively. I welcome all of that.
We also have to consider the importance of sugar. Sugar production is responsible for 9,500 jobs in the UK, many in my constituency. I should at this stage mention that my husband is a farmer, although this is the first time in 45 years that no sugar will be grown on the farm. There are also 7,000 businesses in the sugar supply chain, and 3 million tonnes of sugar is consumed in the UK every year. I appreciate that the Government are investing in trying to ensure that we have pest-resistant varieties, so that no chemicals will be needed because virus yellows will not be able to attack the sugar beet, but these are not available yet. We had an awful time in 2020, just two years ago. I remember being called by many constituents to look around their fields and seeing whole fields of crops that had turned yellow because of virus yellows. Farmers had spent many months growing and tending to those crops, only to find them failing.
The Government have to look at the various risks and ask what the alternative is. If our sugar crop fails, what do we have to do? We could import sugar beet from Belgium, France, Denmark, Spain or one of the other 12 European countries where sugar beet is grown and where they also use neonics, often without the restrictions that the Government have proposed to impose. I heard Members mention the effect on net zero. Let us think about the alternative—importing sugar cane from overseas. What about the deforestation? Most sugar beet is not irrigated; it is just fed by the rain, but sugar cane, because of where it is grown, usually has to be irrigated. That is a 60% water use saving. What about the food miles? We know that sugar grown in the UK travels an average of 28 miles to the factory to be processed into sugar. It travels many thousands of miles, and is a much greater use of carbon dioxide, if imported for many miles across the world. When making environmental judgments, we cannot take the moral high ground and simply export the harm overseas, because we all live on the same planet, and I am sure we agree that we all need to protect it.
What are the farmers’ alternatives if neonics are banned? Either not to grow sugar and to import it, or to use alternative, legal pesticides, which may be broader-spectrum, and potentially more harmful.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech that also mentions farmers. My constituency of Ynys Môn has a strong beekeeping community represented by the Anglesey Beekeepers Association. We have many local honey producers, including Anglesey Bees, Mêl Môn, Felin Honeybees run by Katie Hayward. Does my hon. Friend agree that our farmers are key and that any chemicals, including neonicotinoids, should be used correctly to protect the bee population?
Absolutely. We must remember that bees are very important to farmers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) made clear. Farmers do not wish to use pesticides that they do not need. Equally, they do not wish to see their entire crop fail, nor do we want the alternative of importing crops from overseas, where worse pesticides might have been used.
The Government need to balance the risk, and I think they have done so very carefully. There needs to be a threshold for virus yellows predictions for the year. Indeed, there was a derogation last year, but the seed treatments were never used because the threshold of virus yellows disease was not reached. The application is a seed treatment, which means it is not sprayed on to a flowering crop, potentially landing on bees as they fly past. It is a treatment put on to the seeds, giving protection in the early growth phase. It is not permitted for flowering plants to be grown in that field for 32 months, thus providing additional protection for the crop.
On balance, it is important that we always take an evidence and science-based approach, looking at the potential risks and benefits. Science will ultimately resolve the problem by providing disease and pest-resistant varieties, but I am glad that in the meantime there has been a proportionate and pragmatic Government response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate.
The note that the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) ended on was interesting because the whole point of this debate is that the Government are not following the science. The expert committee on pesticides and the Health and Safety Executive have told the Government that the conditions for the use of these pesticides have not been met, and the Government have chosen to exploit a loophole and ignore the experts.
Those of us who were involved in the seemingly endless discussions on the Environment Act 2021, in pre-legislative scrutiny and Committees—at one point there seemed to be a Second Reading every other day—and on the Agriculture Act 2020, were always worried that the Government did not want to support the precautionary principle and did not want to see it embedded in law. That is why Labour Members tried to amend the Environment Act to give Parliament the power to scrutinise these decisions. The case has been made for that parliamentary scrutiny by several hon. Members today, but it was voted down by the Government.
We know how dangerous pesticides are to bees. I do not want to reiterate all the arguments, but we have heard that when exposed to neonicotinoids in low doses the bees’ immune systems are harmed, making them susceptible to disease. Neonicotinoids disrupt bees’ ability to navigate, forage and reproduce, and in high doses they cause paralysis and death. There is also research showing that pesticides become more dangerous when combined, including pesticides that are specifically marketed as safe for bees.
We have also heard why pollinators—as has been said, they include not only bees but flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and bats—are so important. Some 75% of our crop species require pollination. Pollinators are crucial in fertilising plants and sustaining our food systems. In China they have had to resort to pollinating fruit trees by hand because pollinators have been nearly wiped out by pesticide use. That should serve as a warning to us. As we have heard, there has been a drastic decline in pollinators here, too, falling by over 50% between 1985 and 2005.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned agroecology’s approach to farming. Organisations such as the Soil Association, which is based in Bristol, have been highlighting the dangers of pesticides and promoting alternatives for years. They argue that if nature is properly harnessed to pollinate crops organically and to deal with pests, rather than relying on destructive pesticides that harm biodiversity, crop yields would be higher. Evidence has shown that margins with wildflowers for pollinators increase crop yield.
The sugar beet sector has said that there will no longer be a need for neonics by 2023 if integrated pest management approaches can be adopted instead. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, what are the Government doing to support that as an alternative to a reliance on pesticides?
It is not just pollinators that are at risk from the use of pesticides. Otters were nearly wiped out in the 1970s due to pesticide use. Thankfully, otter populations have recovered since those pesticides were banned, but they are still under threat from other so-called “forever chemicals”, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
My hon. Friend is making a very well-informed speech, as always. There seems to be some doubt between Members as to where the balance of science lies. My hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) have both said that the science does not back the Government’s position. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree. We have heard from the experts and they have said that the case has not been made. I know that the Government have been quite dismissive of experts in the past, but that is the case. What is the point of asking for expert opinion if the Government do not abide by it? I suspect that in her response, the Minister will tell us that the Environment Act 2021 commits us to reversing biodiversity decline by 2030. Perhaps she could tell us how allowing the use of neonicotinoids in pesticides will help that? The Minister may also point out how the Agriculture Act 2020 rewards farmers who try to increase biodiversity on their farms. However, we heard in yesterday’s debate in this Chamber that the Government are making a mess of introducing ELMS.
Later this year, the convention on biological diversity will meet in China; it is very unclear what the Government hope to achieve from the UK’s participation. Perhaps it would be an idea to go along, promote the precautionary principle, and pledge to ditch the pesticides, protect our pollinators and genuinely promote biodiversity.
Many in the farming community support nature recovery, and they understand that business as usual is no longer acceptable. In striking that balance, they need the support of Government to help them work towards nature recovery. My parents-in-law used to have bees—at one point they had four hives. The bees were very much part of the family; they lived at the end of the garden to protect them from our children’s ball games. I have come to know these wonderful and highly civilised creatures, that work incredibly hard on our behalf. We should put a very high value on them. I know how vulnerable they are to human interference.
The use on crops of pesticides containing neonicotinoids has an extremely damaging effect on the mobility of bees, and their use was banned by the EU in 2018. The Government originally agreed and promised that they would reintroduce them only when the scientific evidence changed. There has been no new evidence, but the use of pesticides has been allowed again. The Government should make the protection of our wildlife and the environment a priority, rather than going back on their word. The Government are using Brexit not, as they would like us to believe, to the advantage of people and the environment, but the opposite. They are reversing important decisions that were made for the protection of the environment.
Many organisations and constituents in Bath have reached out to me with great concerns over this issue, and the lack of consideration behind it. As we have heard, the expert committee on pesticides have warned how damaging neonicotinoids are for bees and aquatic life, but the Government have chosen to ignore them. That is not acceptable. In April 2021, I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether the Government encouraged the use of alternatives to neonicotinoids; the answer I received was that the Government were completely committed to reducing the use of pesticides. However, in the same debate, 10 minutes later, the Secretary of State said that until a suitable alternative to neonicotinoids was found, the Government would continue to grant dispensations for the use of them. There we have it—words of woolly aspiration, but when it comes to the crunch the Government actively support what I would call the gradual extinction of the UK’s bee population.
The long-term harmful effects of the Government’s careless attitude will be felt by all of us as it has huge implications for our food supplies. It is paramount that this Government wake up and impose much tighter restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, rather than standing by and being complicit in the degradation of our wildlife, the quality of our environment and the long-term security of our food supplies.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Roger.
As we have heard loud and clear, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) loves bees. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the passionate, knowledgeable and eloquent case that he made on their behalf. Bees need protection. In the last half-century, half of Britain’s bee, butterfly and moth species have declined; in the last 30 years, three bumblebee species have become extinct; and right now, almost one in 10 species of wild bee face extinction. This situation cannot continue.
Bees are our friends. Almost a third of the food that we eat relies on pollination, mainly by bees. That work—pollinating crops—by these notoriously industrious insects is worth millions of pounds each year. If we did not have wild pollinators to do that vital work for us, it would cost around £1.8 billion each year to replace them.
We need to speak up for our bees because we need them. They are not only essential for our farming system but ensure the diversity of our wild plants, and they also have a vital role in sustaining the natural habitats that we know and love. As my constituent Hilary told me when she asked me to attend today:
“This matter affects all our lives.”
Many of my constituents worry about the ecological emergency that we face. They wanted me to speak up to protect our bees and to oppose the Government plans that threaten the future of bees. My constituent Judith tells me:
“I have a wildlife garden and I have noticed the stark decline in the number of bees in recent years.”
She is right to be concerned. We cannot afford to put our bee populations at additional risk.
Would my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Flourish at Ford Way community gardening project in Upton, in my constituency, which does fantastic work through bee-friendly gardening, keeping hives and producing fantastic honey? Does she share the concern of my constituents, who have drawn attention to research by Professor David Goulson, an academic and author, who has warned that just a single teaspoon of this type of chemical is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees—equivalent to four lorryloads?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she made a very important and valuable point.
As many hon. Members have said, bees are already under threat as a direct result of the way we live and the way we farm and use land, including the use of pesticides and particularly neonicotinoids. Although we have known for many years that neonicotinoids have a harmful effect on bees and other pollinators, recent studies have only confirmed and strengthened the evidence. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has said, there is a consensus about the need to restrict the use of these chemicals.
As an EU member, the UK was part of creating a strict regime to regulate the use of these pesticides. An almost total ban on their use was put in place in 2018, because of the damage that they cause to bees. The then Environment Secretary—the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—said that the Government supported that move, because we could not
“afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”
Those protective regulations are still part of retained law in Great Britain, but now the Government are authorising the use of a bee-killing pesticide. That is clearly a betrayal of promises given during debates on the Environment Act 2021, when we were assured that the Government would only strengthen the protection of nature. My constituent Stewart worries that the Government want to rescind that protection to prove that the UK has more freedom after Brexit. I am sure that he is wrong and I am certain that nobody voted for the freedom to kill bees.
Of course, the Government themselves claim that a benefit of Brexit is
“halting the decline in nature”
“strengthening our environmental regulation”.
However, for those words to mean something, we cannot allow the use of neonicotinoids, because that is not consistent with them.
Of course, UK farmers need our support. Living in Nottinghamshire, I understand the importance of sugar beet production. However, we cannot afford to take this risk with our precious pollinators, ignoring the Government’s own scientific advice, especially when the Environment Secretary himself has admitted that it is not possible to
“rule out completely a degree of risk to bees.”
My constituent Christopher worries that with the country still entrenched in the battle against covid and the headline-grabbing scandals of the Prime Minister, it will be easy to forget the long-term policies that affect our natural world.
We all share a huge responsibility to protect our environment for future generations. Government must help our food producers to farm sustainably and invest in resistant crops. It is not too late to reverse this bad decision. Ministers can and must think again, maintain the ban on neonics and save our bees.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate. I rise to join the love-in for bees and to highlight the issues faced by sugar beet growers and processors in my North West Norfolk constituency. The growers in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and other parts of the country saw yields hit by 25% in 2020—in some cases, the loss was as much as 80%—because of virus yellows. As has been mentioned, that represents a hit to the sector of £65 million. I have met with growers in my constituency; like my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), I have seen the damage that virus yellows does.
Given the dramatic loss of crop, an emergency authorisation application was made in 2021 and granted, but there is deliberately a high bar for that. Before an application can be granted, the Government have to consider five tests. There need to be special circumstances. There must be a danger. There must be no reasonable alternative. The authorisation must be necessary. And the product must be subject to limited and controlled use. Those are, rightly, tough tests. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) said, it is important to recognise that sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and so is not attractive to bees—the bees that we all love.
In 2021, the conditions attached to the emergency authorisation included a forecast of virus levels of 9%. That condition was not met, so no neonics were used. This year, the Government have toughened that test, so there would need to be a virus level of 19%. Furthermore, no flowering crop can be planted in the same soil for 32 months. Therefore it is a very limited authorisation. It is an insurance policy that may well not end up being used, as was the case last year.
Ultimately, we need to move away from neonics. I think everyone would agree with that. British Sugar, the National Farmers Union and the British Beet Research Organisation are all working on alternatives to tackle virus yellows through non-chemical alternatives, through gene editing, integrated pest management and improving natural resistance in the crop.
I rise to support my hon. Friend and to speak on behalf of the many sugar beet growers in my constituency, which he knows well because we are neighbours. It is absolutely right to say, as he has emphasised, that there can be an agreement between those who want to balance nature and those who want to produce crops but also care about the environment, care about bees and care about the diversity that bees are at the heart of. We should not create a paradox, an artificial distinction between those who farm and grow and those who care about wildlife and nature.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Farmers in my constituency love bees; they love the pollinators. They are working on alternatives, and I want to see those alternatives come forward more rapidly, so that further authorisations are not needed in the future.
Thank you for calling me, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing this debate forward. As a constituency MP for a rural area, I have worked for some time to raise awareness of this issue; as a landowner, I have been interested in it; and finally, as a grandfather, I am invested in the need to get it right when it comes to our bees and ecosystems. I am very fortunate to have neighbours, Christopher and Valentine Hodges, who have introduced beehives on our farm, in Greyabbey in the constituency of Strangford. They are introducing the black bee. It is a species that is under some threat, so the fact that they are doing that is something that we should be very grateful for.
A consensus is emerging on the need to restrict the use of NNIs—neonicotinoid insecticides. The fact is that without pollinators, we cannot eat and will die. We need to restrict the use of NNIs and that must happen now.
I am conscious of your direction, Sir Roger, but may I quickly say this? The Northern Ireland protocol ensures that Great Britain now operates a separate regime, which began on 1 January 2021, and is able to diverge from EU decisions when it comes to pesticide approval. May I ask the Minister, as I often do, what discussions she has had, and will she enter into discussions with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister who has responsibility for the issues in respect of the protocol and with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly?
What this debate, too, explains is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not simply a matter of a little extra postage paid or an additional form to be filled in; it is a matter of grave importance to our regulations and our environment in Northern Ireland. There can and should be no divergence UK wide. We should all take the issue of pesticides seriously, debate it together, as we are doing today, and apply the result UK wide—to everywhere. Currently, my constituents have no vote and no voice as to these regulations that affect their food intake and future security. That beggars belief.
I am a great believer that bees should be appreciated, respected and protected. From my time as a child in the 1960s, in my aunt Isobel’s garden, marvelling at the wonder of honeycomb—where my love of honey came from—to becoming a man and understanding the vital role played by the humble bee, I have learned this lesson. In the absence of indisputable proof to the contrary, NNI pesticides are dangerous and harmful in the long term to our environment, food security and, indeed, our future.
I work with an Ulster Unionist party councillor in Ards and North Down Borough Council. He is also a farmer, and I conclude with his words: when the bees are gone, we are gone. With that in mind, we must do all that we can to prevent that happening. Robust NNI regulations play a massive part in this, and should consequently be retained and implemented in UK law.
I appreciate you calling me to speak in this very important debate, Sir Roger. I have received a great deal of correspondence from constituents about the Government’s authorisation of an emergency application in England for the use of Cruiser SB pesticide, which contains the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. I share their concerns, not least because the Government have not heeded the conclusions of the Health and Safety Executive or their own expert committee on pesticides, which found that
“The requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met”
and that pollution from the pesticide would damage river life.
As the Wildlife Trusts have pointed out, these neonicotinoids
“will have a devastating impact on pollinators, wildflowers, and waterways—at a time when nature needs to be urgently put into recovery.”
The Government have even accepted, as recently as last December, that there is a
“growing weight of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators.”
Why have Ministers gone ahead and granted the authorisation?
Some of my constituents have highlighted the crucial role that bees play in maintaining a healthy environment. One constituent made the specific point that, by allowing the use of deadly pesticides, the UK Government undermine the urgency and incentive to invest in and implement alternative, less harmful control methods. That perhaps ties in with a point that the RSPB made concerning the importance of upholding the ban on highly toxic pesticides, such as neonics, and instead working to support our farmers to reduce their reliance on these harmful chemicals. As one of my constituents asks:
“How can the UK government approve using such material, it goes against all common sense and scientific reason?”
Clearly this is something that many Wirral West residents care passionately about, and I share their concerns.
The Wildlife Trusts have been very clear that the Government’s authorisation is “short sighted”. They say that, by authorising the use of neonics, the UK Government are damaging their ability to meet the legal requirement contained in the Environment Act 2021 to halt and reverse the decline of nature by 2030. That is because pollinators such as bees are vital to enhancing biodiversity. Without thriving populations of pollinators in the UK, we will struggle to halt the decline of other species. I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on that specific point; it is an important one that the Minister should address this morning.
I urge the Government to listen to the concerns of wildlife charities, many of which echo the views of my constituents, listen to the views of their own experts and think again.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Roger. I am so grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate. We know that his love of bees is legendary, and his introduction to the debate tackled a series of very complicated issues very thoroughly and effectively, as did all the contributions this morning. There is a big question for the Minister to answer: why was the emergency authorisation decision made? I look forward to her answer.
What has come through very loud and clear in the debate is that farming and the environment must not be seen as in conflict. They have to be addressed together, and we have to find ways of making them work. So many of us have had so many emails from constituents on this subject—we can see that from the attendance in the Chamber this morning. I should say at the outset that I am a species champion for the ruderal bumblebee, which sadly I still have not met, but I am looking for one. They are quite rare, and that is a significant point. Like many other Cambridgeshire MPs, I am a vice president of the Cambridgeshire Beekeepers’ Association, and in my first flush of enthusiasm as a newly elected Member I turned up at its annual general meeting, which completely nonplussed the attendees—I have not embarrassed them since. What that shows is that we all care about bees.
I note that one of the first speeches that I made in this place, back in 2015, was a debate on this very subject. One always looks back nervously to see what one said—particularly when one picks up a brief much later on. I was delighted to find that my final words were that we should listen to science and ensure
“that our bees and farmers can flourish.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 236WH.]
I must also say at the outset that I understand how farmers feel at the moment. From my conversations with them, they so often feel that the tools they need for the job are being systematically taken away, and that is very difficult for them, because nature does not compromise. The problems keep coming, and if farmers do not have the tools to deal with them, it is really hard.
However, as I have said from the beginning of this speech and before, for us, pollinator health is just not negotiable. This is not something that can be traded off, which is a theme that has come through in many of today’s contributions. I listened closely to those contributions, particularly from those Members who represent the east of England. I am an east of England MP, and I know how many jobs are at stake. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) made that point very clearly: it is a huge number of jobs. It is very important to the local economy, and we have to find ways of making it work.
Looking back on the 2015 debate, I noticed that one speaker who followed me said that the lesson to learn from DDT
“is that we must not take risks…I ask the Minister please not to take unnecessary risks with the environment and with human health”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 238-40WH.]
That was not the Minister here today, but one of her colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). The Minister also contributed to that debate, which was much more about oilseed rape and cabbage stem flea beetle. The debate has now moved on to thiamethoxam and sugar beet, which shows that a lot has already been done. However, looking back over the past couple of years, I do not think the Government covered themselves in glory last year, because the Health and Safety Executive advice that is available this year was not so easily available last year: it took Friends of the Earth using freedom of information requests and some testy exchanges at DEFRA questions, which the Minister may remember. I appreciate that the bar has been set higher this year, but from talking to the experts at Rothamsted Research, that does not necessarily mean that it will be that dramatically different if the weather is different. Of course, last year we were saved by the cold weather; at this point, it does not look like that is going to come to the rescue this year.
The key point, though, is that the Secretary of State has ignored the expert advice, as we heard clearly from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport in his introduction, as well as from my hon. Friends for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Virtually everyone has asked why that advice has been overridden, and it is absolutely clear—to those who made their way through the lengthy reports, including the Cruiser SB application, and found their way to page 193—that the test is not considered to be met. I will not take Members through those 193 pages, but there is a simpler account from the expert committee on pesticides, which came to the same conclusion. It also added an extra one, which is worth pulling out given some of the contributions that have been made:
“None of the suggested mitigation measures protected off-crop areas and, if the authorisation is granted, further consideration needs to be given to how this could impact on growers involved in agri-environmental schemes which involved planting flowering margins.”
That point has been made on a number of occasions, and I do not see that it has been properly addressed.
If we look back at some of the history of these debates, many academic studies and reports have been written. I was particularly struck by one produced by Buglife, written by Matt Shardlow—a very detailed account, written a few years ago—which deals with the point about run-off. One point that has not been raised in this debate so far is that this is not just about Cruiser SB: foliar neonicotinoid sprays, Biscaya and InSyst, are also being authorised. There is a real risk of those chemicals getting into the water, and I was particularly struck by the impact on the river Waveney, which that report said was the most heavily polluted river, exceeding the average annual chronic pollution limit. That is relevant, given the interest people have in the water quality of rivers at the moment. The report named not just the Waveney, but the Wensum—for me, that was particularly personal, because that measurement was taken at Ellingham Mill, where my parents used to live. For people in the east of England, this really matters.
Why has the Secretary of State made this decision? The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made an important point about the economics behind this—it has to be about economics, hasn’t it? That is the only explanation. In fact, DEFRA has produced something that I am not sure most people have seen—a very detailed economic analysis of the impacts of virus yellows on sugar beet production. Again, I do not have the time to go into it in detail, but it shows that over a six-year average, there is a potential loss of £14.4 million, and reference has already been made to 2020, which was a particularly hard year. Of course, there is an economic issue, but as has been rightly said by a number of Members, there are other alternatives too, and clearly people are working on them.
Yes, the peach potato aphid is a real menace—there is no doubt about it—but there are ways in which it can be tackled through integrated pest management, better rotation and better husbandry. None of this is easy, and it is not the same everywhere. Different people get different results, and it is all very unpredictable, but it also has to be put into context—again, the point about the potential threat to pollinator health was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East. Look at the value that pollinators bring to our economy: they are estimated to be worth between £430 million and £603 million to UK agriculture in general.
The issue is not simple, and these are tough decisions for farmers. In many ways, it is a gamble trying judge the weather and when the aphid will fly. If people plant too early, they will lose the sugar beet. It is an economic argument. As we have heard, British Sugar is a very viable business and makes money. Through the virus yellows assurance scheme, it has already gone down the road of providing some compensation and some way of pooling the risk on this issue. At the end of all this, we know that bee health is non-negotiable, so why on earth has the Secretary of State chosen to override all the expert advice? We would make a different decision, and I think that decision would be better not only for bees but for farmers, as we create a nature-positive vision for the future.
Sir Roger, it is great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, particularly as I think you would rather have been speaking in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate, and I thank Members for taking part in this really important discussion.
I should probably declare my interest. We have two hives of bees at home, and they are an integral part of our orchard management, particularly for my apple and pear crop.
Let me set out the problem. We all eat and enjoy sugar—some of us rather more than we should. It is important to remember that 63% of the sugar that the UK consumes is made from home-grown sugar beet, and we had an interesting debate on food security in this Chamber yesterday. Sugar beet seedlings are very vulnerable to aphid predation. The aphids spread the devastating virus yellows, which can seriously reduce both the quantity and quality of the crop. The disease is more widespread in certain years, particularly after mild winters.
As we have heard, neonics were previously used as a pesticide to tackle the problem. We banned their use outside in 2018, at the same time as the EU, because of a growing body of academic evidence that they could be damaging to bees and other pollinators. That affected my farm in respect of growing oil seed rape. We had grown the crop since 1974, but we no longer do so. In this, we are not alone, and the planted area of oil seed rape is not much more than half the level that it used to be before neonics were last used.
I will not, as I have a great deal to get through.
Oil seed rape is significantly different from beet. As we all know, it is a beautiful flowering crop, and its pollen and nectar attract bees. Beet is harvested before flowering, so the crop itself does not pose a direct threat. Protecting bees and other pollinators is a priority for the Government through the pollinator strategy, and this is a way to bring farmers and researchers together in order to improve the status of pollinating insects.
The need to take action to protect sugar beet is not restricted to this country. Twelve beet-producing EU countries have granted emergency authorisations for neonics since 2018. Their authorisation conditions have been less stringent than ours—for example, none has applied a threshold to determine whether the product should be used. There is no doubt that if our crop suffered major damage because of aphid predation and we did not allow the use of a neonic in an emergency, we would have to import beet from countries where these products are used.
We have now had three years to grow the crops without neonics. In 2019, perhaps because of residual levels in the soil, and in 2021, after a cold winter, the virus threat was low. However, 2020 saw severe damage, with about a quarter of the national crop being lost, as we have heard. Some individual growers were even more severely affected. Imports were needed to enable British Sugar to honour its contracts. Partly because of that, a smaller crop was planted in 2021, with some growers understandably reluctant to take the risk.
Taking into account both the scientific evidence and the economic analysis, the decision was taken to grant exceptional temporary use of Cruiser this year. In order to mitigate the risk, conditions of the authorisation include a reduced application rate, as well as a prohibition on any flowering crop being planted in the same field within 32 months of a treated sugar beet crop. Our chief scientific adviser advised us on that mitigation.
There will be an initial threshold for use, meaning that the seed treatment will only be used if the predicted level of virus is above 19% of the national crop. If that threshold is not met, the treatment for the seed will not be used. That is exactly what happened in 2021. It will only be used in an emergency.
I would like to provide what I hope will be some reassurance to Members. The maximum amount of neonics that could be used on English crops, if the threshold is reached, will amount to 6% of what used to be used prior to 2018. In reaching our decision, we were informed by the advice of HSE, and the views of the UK expert committee on pesticides and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, who has been involved at every stage of the process. We also considered economic issues and were informed by analysis provided by DEFRA economists.
The scientific advice identified risks to pollinators, and the restrictions we have applied for are designed specifically by our chief scientific adviser to mitigate those risks. Some residual risk remains, but we judge that it is sufficiently low to be outweighed by the benefits to sugar beet production of using the product.
In taking this decision, we wanted to be as transparent as possible and give hon. Members, as well as members of the public, access to the information that informed the decision-making process.
If I have time, I would be delighted to. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the full set of reasons given by the Secretary of State on gov.uk, because that gives the complete decision.
DEFRA agrees with HSE that it is not possible to completely rule out a degree of risk to bees from flowering plants in or near the field in the years after the neonic use. That is the concern. However, our chief scientific adviser suggests that the risks are reduced to a large extent by the 32-month ban on flowering crops.
The materials have been made publicly available. I was very keen to do that and to make sure that the decision was as transparent as possible. We have published several accompanying documents outlining the key elements involved in making the decision. There is nothing sneaky about the decision. The details are all available on gov.uk.
On the suggestion that we have a parliamentary vote on the issue, I am happy to look again at how the system works. We will be outlining our ideas about the new system in the national action plan, which will be published this summer. I politely say that there are at least 10 to 15 applications for emergency authorisations every year for different products. I see the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) sitting over there—I do not know whether the Whips would be thrilled if we had to vote on each of those, nor perhaps would it be a good use of parliamentary time.
There is no doubt that this is an issue in which parliamentarians take an interest. That is right, and I am always happy to discuss these decisions with anybody who wants to. Please come and talk to me about the specifics of the decision or the science at any point.
Looking to the future, it is of course important that industry works hard on the development of alternative sustainable approaches to protect sugar beet from the viruses. Those include the development of new tolerant seed varieties, measures to improve crop hygiene and husbandry, and modern breeding techniques, such as gene editing. British Sugar and NFU Sugar attended a parliamentary event this week. I was able to talk to them about how they could interact better, telling us about the new products and ideas they can put in place to deal with the problem in future.
Ultimately, our food security relies on a healthy environment and thriving pollinators. Sustainable agriculture and supporting nature go hand in hand. In our agricultural transition, we are already incentivising farmers to do the right thing. This year, we are piloting a standard that will help farmers to transition away from the use of pesticides, and incentivise alternative ways to control pests.
This decision was not taken lightly, and is based on a robust scientific assessment. We will continue to work hard to support farmers and to protect and restore our vital pollinator populations.
I thank all speakers in today’s debate. Across parties, Members are clearly passionate about the restoration of bee populations, as well as about supporting our farmers. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said, those objectives need to be shared, rather than in competition. Otherwise, farmers, nature and all of us will lose out.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response, but I do not think she adequately explained why she chose to override scientific advice with this decision. I also note that she did not concentrate on the 2023 date after which neonicotinoids will not be used again. I anticipate that this will be the last debate we need to have on the use of neonicotinoids. Any debate on the subject this time next year would need to be subject to a parliamentary vote on just neonicotinoid use, rather than on other emergency authorisations. The Government have clearly set out a transition to a point where we will not need to use bee-killing pesticides. If bee-killing pesticides are still to be used, we are in danger of not meeting our obligations under the 25-year environment plan, the Environment Act or the declaration of a climate and nature emergency that Parliament passed in 2019.
I am grateful that the Minister said that nothing sneaky was involved in the decision, but nothing science-led seems to have been involved either. That is the problem we have here. I look forward to the action plan coming out and, I hope, the early revision of the national pollinator strategy. A comprehensive consultation starting this year would be a useful way to signal the intention to restore bee populations. I am grateful to you, Sir Roger, for being in the Chair, and for all the contributions, particularly from those who contacted us but were not able to speak in the debate. I hope that the cross-party strength of feeling makes it clear to the Minister and the Secretary of State that bee-killing pesticides should never be used again.
I thank all hon. Members for managing the time in a manner that has enabled all those who wished to do so to participate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government approval for the use of neonicotinoids and the impact on bees.