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2 March 2022

A green Brexit? Not for bees

Approval of a highly toxic pesticide makes a mockery of ministers' promises.

By Philippa Nuttall

“Britain needs its bees,” said George Eustice in support of a campaign launched by the NGO Friends of the Earth nine years ago. “They’re not only an iconic part of our countryside, they play a vital role in pollinating our crops and flowers too. I’ll be doing all I can to help protect our bees in 2013.”

Come 2022, however, Eustice is apparently no longer interested in doing all he can to protect these vital insects. The Environment Secretary, overseeing the government’s pledge to increase flora and fauna in the UK, has approved a highly toxic pesticide that kills bees. On 1 March the government gave a temporary green light for British sugar beet farmers to use thiamethoxam, a pesticide that was banned across Europe in 2018 owing to its unacceptable risks to the environment, especially to bees and other pollinators.

In January the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that thiamethoxam could be used if there were a severe risk to sugar beet from yellows virus, which causes a yellowing, lethal disease in many plants. Westminster says that a “relatively mild winter” means production is now in danger of being seriously affected by the disease, and farmers can go ahead and treat crops with the chemical. “Sixty-three per cent of the UK’s sugar comes from the domestic production of sugar beet,” said the government when justifying its decision.

That may be the case, but in politics we have to make difficult decisions, and science would suggest approving thiamethoxam is not the right one. “A single teaspoon of this chemical can kill 1.25 billion bees, while studies also show a range of sub-lethal effects that affect insects’ ability to forage and reproduce,” says Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, a British NGO. The statistics are worrying given that a study from 2019 showed a third of British wild bees and hoverflies were in decline. Globally, insect populations have fallen by as much as 75 per cent in the last 50 years. Pesticides are a main culprit in this collapse and the world’s insects — as the author and biologist Dave Goulson writes in his latest book Silent Earth — are so much more than a nice-to-have.

Insects, and in particular bees, are a vital part of the food chain and biodiversity more widely. Three out of four crops across the globe which produce fruits or seeds for human food depend, at least in part, on pollinators; 87 per cent of all plant species require animal pollination. In 1962 Rachel Carson warned in a Silent Spring about the terrible damage already being wrought by our wanton use of chemicals. We did not listen. Now, an estimated three million tonnes of pesticides are released into the environment every year. 

Eustice’s predecessor, Michael Gove, once boasted of a “green Brexit”. He said that leaving the EU represented a “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers, and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet”. The government insisted this week that its approach to pesticide management had not changed because of Brexit. But it is difficult to see how approving (if only temporarily) a previously banned and toxic pesticide fits with the vision of a green Brexit.

Once again, short-term economic concerns appear to have triumphed over the long-term future of nature. Industry groups inevitably support the decision, with the sector citing losses of over £65 million after a yellows virus outbreak in 2020. This figure pales into insignificance when compared with the value of pollination, however, estimated to be worth between $235bn and $577bn a year worldwide. Not to mention the costs to food production if pollinators continue to decline, or the human health costs associated with exposure to pesticides.

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Britain, like the rest of the world, needs its bees.

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