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9 November 2017updated 11 Jan 2018 6:26pm

Michael Gove decides the experts are right – on bees

Green groups are still worried about the threat from Brexit.

By India Bourke

Michael Gove has come out in support of a total ban on bee-harming pesticides. The surprise move reverses the government’s previous position, goes against the mainstream farming lobby and suggests that the Brexiteer may be sweetening to the opinions of those once so pesky “experts”.

“We want our decisions to be informed at all times by rigorous scientific evidence,” the Secretary of State for the Environment has written in an article for the Guardian.

The body of evidence against neonicotinoid chemicals has now grown so large, Gove says, that it backs-up the European Commissions’ partial 2013 ban, and may even support a case for further action. 

This is good news for the Commisions’ new call for a total ban on neonicotinoid-use outside of greenhouses, which is set to be voted on in December.

Environmental organisations and scientists have long warned of pesticides’ links to plummeting insect populations across the globe, including one recent study showing that Germany’s flying insects have declined by three-quarters in the last quarter century.

Banning pesticides, though, has not been easy. It is something the chemical industry has fought back against, deflecting blame and criticising hostile findings. Two companies even tried to micromanage scientists’ research, according to emails uncovered by a Greenpeace investigation.

Michael Gove’s new support for the ban is thereofore something of a sea-change and has people asking whether things are things finally looking up for green issues in parliament? 

Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, has been pleasantly surprised by Gove’s conduct in his new post. “When Gove was appointed we had some concerns,” he told me. But, he continued, since moving to his latest role Gove has shown a clear willingness to engage with evidence and reach out to environmental groups and experts. His recent speech on soil degradation is “one we’ve been waiting years for an Environment Secretary to make”.

“There is still a mountain to climb, however,” Bennett warned with regards to safe-guarding the UK’s environmental health. There is still no certainty that the vast wealth of EU environmental policy and regulatory mechanisms will be protected in the UK after Brexit and “the default position is that Brexit is really bad for the environment”. Bennett says he has relayed this fact to Gove.

These reservations are echoed by the Green MEP for the South East, Keith Taylor, who is also a member of the European Parliament’s Environment and Public Health Committee.

“Its welcome news that [Gove] has finally looked at the evidence and heeded our call,” he said. “But, and there’s a big but, we must be very wary of the loopholes in the legislation, which the Secretary has promised to maintain post-Brexit. Gove has already confirmed that the government will still seek to allow agribusinesses to bypass the ban with so-called ‘emergency’ authorisations.”

With the National Farmers Union continuing to support pesticide use, such exemptions could thus still see farmers and environmentalists at odds. “We deeply regret the decision the government has taken on this issue as we don’t believe the evidence justifies this abrupt change in policy,” the NFU said in a press statement. To which the NFU President Meurig Raymond added: “We look forward to our continuing conversations in the coming months and years.”

Gove’s latest green offering may have set environmental groups a-buzz, but the sting may come in Brexit’s tail.