The EU’s blanket ban on neonicotinoids in all open fields has major implications for UK farmers. Julie Liddle evaluates what is undoubtedly a difficult situation
Widely used insecticides will be banned from all outdoor crops within months as part of a radical strategy to protect wild bees and honeybees that are crucial to pollination.
The EU’s extended ban on neonicotinoids is expected to be implemented in the UK by the end of this year. It will restrict the use of neonicotinoids to closed greenhouses where bees will not be vulnerable.
Worrying issues around the declining bee population
The measures have been supported by Defra, which says it is committed to enhancing the environment and welcomes the extended restrictions. This follows environment secretary Michael Gove’s decision in November 2017 to reverse the UK’s previous opposition to a full outdoor ban.
Bees and other insects are integral to global food production as they pollinate an estimated three-quarters of all crops.
The widespread use of pesticides has been partly blamed for a drastic decline in the number of bees and other pollinators. As a result, the EU outlawed the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops, such as oil seed rape, in 2013.
In February this year, a report from the EU’s scientific risk assessors (Efsa) ruled that any outdoor use of neonicotinoids represents a threat to honey bees and wild bees. According to the Efsa report, this is because neonicotinoids contaminate soil and water, leading to the presence of the pesticides in wild flowers and/or succeeding crops.
The decision to ban neonicotinoids from all outdoor use has substantial public support, with nearly five million people signing a petition from campaigning organisation Avaaz. It described the ban as ‘a beacon of hope for bees’.
Why growers are dismayed by EU’s extended regulation
However, growers who rely on the chemicals as seed treatments regard the ban as a major blow to their industry. Sugar beet growers, who use neonicotinoid-treated seed to establish crops, have branded the decision to extend the restrictions as ‘a black day’.
Moreover, pesticide manufacturers and some farming groups have accused the EU of being unduly cautious.
The NFU says the ban is ‘regrettable and not justified by the evidence’. Deputy president Guy Smith insists the pest problems that neonicotinoids helped farmers to deal with have not been resolved. As a result, he says there is a danger that the new restrictions will not significantly benefit the bee population, while threatening the effective protection of crops.
And despite welcoming the extended ban, Defra says it recognises the difficulties it will create for farmers and will work with them to explore alternative methods.
Experts do not speak with one voice
Nor is the scientific community unreservedly behind the extra restrictions. Some experts have expressed concern that using neonicotinoids in greenhouses will lead to the pesticides getting into watercourses, where they could damage aquatic life.
Other academics point out that neonicotinoids will continue to be used in flea treatments for pets, in stables and animal transport vehicles, representing a third of all uses.
In reality, we are dependent on farmers as well as pollinators for food production. This means the regulation of pesticide will always have to take account of the unintended consequences of pesticide use as well as the needs of farmers to properly protect their crops.