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Insect Population

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to deal with the decline in the insect population.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Government recognise the importance, value and role of insects in ecosystems. There are over 24,000 species in Britain, around 1,500 of which are pollinators. Increasing habitats benefits insects. Since 2011, over 320,000 acres have been established for wildlife-rich habitat. We will introduce an environmental land management system to reward farmers for environmental outcomes. In addition, integrated pest management, zero tolerance of the Asian hornet and continued research make up our approach to addressing long-term declines.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Unless an insect is a butterfly or a bee, it does not get a PR champion. Most of us think they are really annoying. However, three-quarters of all the food we eat is pollinated by this largely unsung army of trillions of bugs. They provide a service to the world that is estimated to be worth around $500 billion a year. It is a service most of us barely think about, but in the Maoxian valley in China, where insects have been entirely wiped out, workers now pollinate apple trees by hand at a cost of $19 a day, and they can do only five trees every day. We all know that this rapid and desperate decline, at a rate of 2.5% over the last 25 to 30 years, is because of the use of chemicals in farming. Will the Government set a date for phasing out the noxious chemicals that are destroying insects?

My Lords, I specifically mentioned integrated pest management, which is about finding a reduction wherever possible. Indeed, the area of land in the UK under integrated pest management has grown; by March 2017, there were close to 17,000 plans covering nearly 11 million acres. Farmers are helped with a range of chemical, physical and biological controls to manage pests in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. Finding alternatives and continuing research is the way forward, but clearly we need to ensure that we also have food to eat.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that oilseed rape suffered a loss of approximately 10% last year, owing to the cabbage stem flea beetle? It is forecast that these losses will be considerably greater this year, with the ever-increasing numbers of these insects, putting the viability of this crop into question. Oilseed rape is the most important arable rotational crop, producing edible vegetable oils, livestock feed and biofuels. As a farmer, I am aware of this.

My Lords, I declare that I have also had some losses on rape crop this year due to flea beetle, so I understand the noble Lord’s point. We have supported tough restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, for instance, following scientific advice. The overriding principle is that we have to sustain the environment, because it is the environment from which our food is grown. We will always act on the best scientific advice. We have a UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. Research is important, as it helps us to find better alternatives.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is not just farmers who should look after insects? Every single person who has a garden should do so, by planting plants which attract insects and stopping concreting or tarmacking their front gardens.

My Lords, I entirely agree. That is why the department has supported the Bees’ Needs campaign and why Carnaby Street was renamed “Carnabee Street” last year. The owners of the street put up 720 window boxes to attract pollinators to our capital city. We all need to do something like that, whether with allotments, gardens or window boxes, or on large estates and the state estates. We need to do more to encourage the insect populations.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. The Minister talked about how much land was now being farmed in a more environmentally sound way. A number of farmers are embracing that principle and working to create biodiversity on their farmland. However, we need the research; we need the evidence that backs us up in saying that this is the most effective way to increase farm food yields in the long term. Can the Minister say a little more about funding for research, so that it is not just niche farmers providing that biodiversity but is extended as good practice across the board?

My Lords, I referred to improving our evidence base: that is why we want to work with the scientific councils, which continue to fund research on insects. Our evidence base is improving because of that. For instance, the University of Bristol’s recent assessment has identified gardens and allotments as particularly good for pollinators; that refers back to the noble Countess’s question. Clearly, research is where we will learn more about alternatives to pesticides and ways to improve a habitat.

My Lords, will the Government’s environmental land management schemes specifically have a long-term strategy to address the decline in pollinators, particularly bees?

Yes. One of the extremely important things in the agri-environmental packages is to make it easier for farmers to provide flowers on fields to support wild pollinating insects. Of course, in improving things for wild pollinating insects, we are also improving things for insects that may not be pollinating. It is important that we get this diversity, because that is the way our ecosystem survives.

My Lords, the overuse of pesticides is a major contributor to the serious decline in our bees. Therefore, why are the Government not supporting pre-approval tests for bee safety in the pesticide approval process, unlike France and Germany?

My Lords, as I have said, we will always support the advice of our experts. That is why we have the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. We act on their advice.

My Lords, given that the use of pesticides is the principal threat to pollinators, can I commend the work of Rothamsted Research in my old constituency? It is developing new varieties of plants which do not need pesticides because they are immune to the bugs concerned and therefore protect the pollinators. It produces these new varieties by both conventional and genetically modified means. Will this country not be freer to use the latter, with appropriate regulation and protection, once we leave the EU?

My Lords, as I said in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, we will always act on the best scientific advice at the time. I congratulate Rothamsted Research and other research institutes; it is research that will help us out of the mess that we have created.