Bees, as well as being great dancers and makers of honey, are talented mathematicians. Experiments have proved the expert pollinators can add, subtract and understand the concept of zero. The UK government, however, seems to have trouble doing likewise when it comes to their protection.
Despite recognising that bees and insect pollinators contribute around £630m a year to the UK’s £100bn food industry, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in January authorised the potential use of a bee-harming neonicotinoid, a class of insecticide. The chemical in question, thiamethoxam, is used to treat seeds in order to kill the aphids that spread beet yellows virus, a disease that in 2020 resulted in economic losses of £67m to the national sugar beet crop: a lot, but still only roughly a tenth of pollinators’ overall economic contribution.
The independent expert body, Health and Safety Executive (HSE), had advised the government not to lift the ban on thiamethoxam’s use, despite the risk to the crop. But at the start of March, British Sugar announced that the aphid forecast was high enough to trigger the pesticide’s deployment.
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The situation alarms business leaders like Anabel Kindersley, co-owner of the British beauty brand Neal’s Yard Remedies. Back in 2011, Neal’s Yard was concerned enough about the pesticides’ impacts to launch its original Bee Lovely campaign. The effort raised money for bee-friendly charities such as BugLife and Pesticide Action Network UK, and partnered with Friends of the Earth to deliver a petition to parliament. Its new #StandByBees coalition now includes more than 80 British businesses and organisations – from the designer Bella Freud to the Yeo Valley food brand – and is calling on the government to set out a strong target and strategy for reducing pesticide use.
“It is not only the bees that will suffer this year – our international reputation will too,” Kindersley warned. “Using these pesticides sends a clear signal to Europe and the world that we don’t take agricultural standards seriously, and I’m concerned that businesses across the board will fall short of export regulations.”
When we met recently near her business’s London base, the organic beauty advocate stressed that this is not the first time the government has authorised pollinator-killing pesticides. In 2018, after the EU banned outdoor uses of neonicotinoids, Kindersley was hopeful the political battle might be done. But then in 2022 the UK government granted an “emergency” use of thiamethoxam. The cold spring meant the required threshold for aphid prevalence was not met. Now it has.
“If we keep having emergency derogations, they’re not an emergency, they become a routine,” Kindersley said, adding that a few days before the UK authorised its use this year, the EU blocked the same request in France. Unlike the UK, the EU has ruled that there can be no exceptions to the neonicotinoid ban. “They drew a line in the sand to say enough is enough.”
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“British quality is an intangible thing; it is a sentiment, a feeling of how we always do the right thing. I’ve got Japanese consumers and shops who come to us because we provide pure organic from England. You might start finding they go to a German health and beauty brand because Germany will stand for better environmental policies.”
The UK government’s position on pesticides is also “illogical”, Kindersley believes, with thiamethoxam’s exemption from the ban coming just days before Defra announced new subsidies to reward nature-friendly farming. “We’re all being hit by the costs that are rising. And by climate change. It is a constant battle. But that shouldn’t mean you throw nature under the bus. It’s short-termism and we can’t think like that, not now, when we’re facing an ecological collapse.”
There is some hope for change. On Monday (20 March), the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee announced an inquiry into insect decline and food security. But while Kindersley said she was “delighted to see this critical issue getting the attention it deserves”, she fears further delay. “We know that the short-term productivity boost from pesticide use is killing insects and putting the UK’s long-term food security at risk. We need to see practical solutions such as integrated pest management rolled out with speed and scale.”
The beauty industry itself does not have a clean sheet with regards to environmental degradation. Even Neal’s Yard, which proudly proclaims its status as the first British health and beauty brand to use organically certified products, has not yet been able to eliminate all emissions from its supply chain and is still reliant on carbon offsets. Yet Kindersley is a believer in buying “less but better”. And in holding the government to the same standards of independent certification, as she would the products she sells.
Her campaign’s particular focus this time around is also on making the business case against pesticide use. Academics such as Dave Goulson are best-placed to make the scientific case for the ban, she said, while nature-friendly farming advocates, like Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, are strongest on the benefits of alternative pest-management. What she can bring is first-hand experience of the “detrimental impact” on Britain’s reputation.
“I didn’t realise it would be so political,” she said with regard to the way government support has shifted over the years. “I shouldn’t have to do this, but I must… We’ve all got to roll our sleeves up and help each other – so that we can have a better place to live and a better environment for future generations.”