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Biodiversity: Impact of Neonicotinoids

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they made of the impact on biodiversity of the decision to grant authorisation to use a product containing a neonicotinoid to treat sugar beet in 2021.

The Government considered the impact on biodiversity and the environment posed by the use of the product Cruiser SB on the basis of expert scientific assessment. The Government concluded that, when mitigated by the strict conditions attached to the emergency authorisations, the impacts were outweighed by the benefits of use. The Government remain committed to tight controls on neonicotinoids and have no intention of lifting the restrictions that were put in place in 2018.

I draw attention to my environmental interests, as laid down in the register. My noble friend cannot be unaware of the immense frustration, and even anger, felt by many at this decision. While I understand the plight of beet growers, can he acknowledge that there are no safeguards to prevent this dangerous substance entering watercourses? Even his own department acknowledges that this treatment is massively harmful to wildlife. Will my noble friend commit to publishing the NFU 2020 application and any detailed advice from the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and English Nature, so that we can have full transparency to understand the decision-making process?

I will certainly convey the noble Lord’s request in relation to the NFU application, but I am afraid that is not a decision I can make here and now. The Government are committed, in the way that they were last month, last year and the year before, to the neonicotinoid restrictions that were put in place in 2018. This emergency authorisation has been approved for a very limited period for one specific crop, sugar beet, which does not flower and is grown only in the east of England. Tight controls are part of the conditions of the authorisation to minimise environmental and biodiversity impacts.

My Lords, this initiative is for England only, of course, but it will certainly have a knock-on effect on Wales. Does the Minister accept that the neonicotinoids used on sugar beet will leach into the soil and water at the base of the crop, contaminating flowering weeds, with implications for other wildlife and pollinators and triggering further pesticide treatment? The Government contend that this will be avoided by ensuring that flowering crops will not be planted in fields previously supporting sugar beet—how will this be enforced?

If Cruiser SB were to be used by everyone who is covered by the emergency authorisation that has been provided, the amount used would be around 6% of the quantity applied in each of the years running up to the ban on neonicotinoids—so we are talking about very specific circumstances. The conditions include a reduced application rate, as well as a 22-month prohibition on any flowering crop being planted after a treated sugar beet crop. For oilseed rape, which, as you know, is particularly attractive to pollinating insects, the prohibition extends to 32 months. No one likes pesticides, but the conditions that Defra has applied will limit whatever potential negatives exist.

My Lords, I refer to my farming interests in the register. Given that the derogation for sugar beet was broadly supported by members of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides at its meeting in November, will my noble friend confirm that this is in sharp contrast to the emergency derogation granted by Defra earlier in 2020 to spray copper hydroxide as a blight fungicide on organic potato crops, which was opposed by members of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of environmental concerns over acute aquatic toxicity? Would he agree that the way to get both conventional and organic farmers to use less pesticide is to enable innovative breeding technologies?

The noble Lord makes an important point. The Government’s goal and the purpose of our pesticides programme action plan is to minimise the use of pesticides. A big part of this is specified in our 25-year environment plan, which commits us to prioritising integrated pest management to maximise the use of non-chemical control techniques and to minimise the use of chemical pesticides. In plain English, that means increasing the use of nature-friendly methods with the potential to enhance biodiversity, including benefiting pollinators. This approach is laid out in the revised national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides, which is currently out for consultation. I encourage the noble Lord to take part in it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, whose scientists proved to Syngenta and the world that neonicotinoids did indeed reduce the overwintering and reproduction success of both honey bees and wild bees—and that a decline in pollinators could cost us billions of pounds. Bearing in mind that new breeding techniques could soon solve the issue of virus yellows in sugar beet, I ask the Minister: what are the limitations to this neonicotinoid authorisation, in relation to a sunset clause and whether there are any geographic boundaries drawn around it?

The authorisation that has been provided is for a specific and limited period of time, covering one season, and there are no plans to extend that emergency authorisation. The purpose of this authorisation was to allow time for the industry, as the noble Lord says, to develop alternatives; it is urgently seeking to do so now. As I said in my opening remarks, we have absolutely no intention—and indeed we will not—to go back on the restrictions and bans that were brought in in 2018, which have been translated into UK law.

My Lords, how is this decision compliant with the Aarhus convention on environmental justice, given that the application documents and the chief scientist’s advice to the Government are being kept secret, and that, while the NFU lobbied undercover, the public could not participate in the process?

The ability to consider this emergency authorisation comes from EU legislation. It is not a case of reducing our standards after leaving the EU, since 10 EU countries including Belgium, Denmark and Spain granted emergency authorisations for neonicotinoid seed treatments used on sugar beet in 2020, just as we have done this year. Our position on these pesticides remains exactly the same; there is no divergence. We supported restrictions in 2018 and this is a narrow emergency authorisation, which has been made on the merits of the case.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a rather poor amateur beekeeper, for environmental reasons. Give that the evidence is that neonics are highly toxic to bees—5,000 to 10,000 times more than DDT—the importance of pollinators, and that we know that the residue which is lethal to bees will lie on leaves for several days, is it really sensible to even consider opening the door to the use of this lethal material? I appreciate that there is no evidence that the bee colony collapse is entirely related to this material but, given the pressures on bee populations, is it not rather irresponsible to consider making a derogation even as limited as this?

Pollinators have an almost unimaginable and incalculable importance. They are an essential part of our environment; they play a crucial role in food production and have suffered huge decline. There have been some promising signs over the last two or three years. Nevertheless, the news for pollinators in this country is bad. We have a national pollinator strategy with a 10-year plan, which involves significant ramping up of our efforts to create habitat for pollinators, strengthening the monitoring and management of honey bee diseases and threats from invasive non-native species such as the Asian hornet. The decision we are discussing was assessed by the Health and Safety Executive, Defra scientists and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. They all considered that evidence, and the view was that the conditions placed were sufficient to remove the threat that noble Lords are concerned about.

My Lords, I declare an interest through my involvement at Rothamsted. Can I follow up the question put to the Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, which I do not think he fully answered? Given the direct negative consequences of this policy on bees, which as we know are already in serious decline in the UK, will the Government commit to publishing urgently the full scientific assessment by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides of this policy change on our natural environment, so that there is transparency about how the decision was made?

I can commit to conveying that request to the department. I see no reason why the assessment should not be made public, but it is not for me to unilaterally make that decision here and now.

I declare my interest as recorded on the register. I thank the Minister but can he confirm that standards of production, including constraints on pesticide use, will apply to imported crops, including sugar, so that UK producers are not disadvantaged?

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. The Government are guided, as they pursue new free trade agreements and seek to expand our trading relationships around the world, by a commitment to ensuring that imports do not compromise or undermine the standards that we are proud to apply here in the United Kingdom, whether in environmental or animal welfare standards.

Sitting suspended.