THE GOVERNMENT must introduce a precautionary moratorium on three pesticides linked to the decline of pollinators like honeybees, according to a powerful committee of MPs.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Parliament’s cross-party green watchdog, today published its latest report on “Pollinators and Pesticides”.
The EAC claimed that the Environment Department, DEFRA, was taking an “extraordinarily complacent” approach to protecting bees given the “weight of scientific evidence” that now proves the link between certain pesticides and a decline in bee populations. The committee called for a ban on three pesticides (imidacloprid, clothianidin and TMX) from January next year.
The EAC report states that disease, habitat loss and climate change can all affect insect populations, but a growing body of peer-reviewed research suggests that the use of the group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids is having an especially damaging impact on pollinators. Applied to seeds, these systemic pesticides are widely used in the UK on oilseed rape, cereals, maize, sugar beet and crops grown in glasshouses.
The agro-chemical companies, however, have suggested there is “no new evidence” in the EAC’s report to support a ban on neonicotinoids.
The battle for the bees has been going on for years. The EU has been considering a ban on the three widely used pesticides linked to the decline of bees, but talks have stalled. Some of the agro-chemical companies have suggested a plan to encourage more bee-friendly habitats and further research. This would replace any plans for a pesticide ban, which they claim will damage the economy.
The EAC said that a precautionary ban is now justified while more research is carried out. Pesticide manufacturers often claim that studies linking their products to bee decline are flawed or inconclusive and that other factors are primarily to blame, such as the Varroa mite, claimed the EAC. But although the agrochemical industry has produced many studies on the environmental effect of pesticides, it keeps most of its data secret on grounds of commercial confidentiality. The ECA’s report warns that this lack of transparency is preventing a fuller understanding of the problem.
EAC chair Joan Walley called on the industry to place the results of its trials and studies in the public domain so that they can be subjected to open academic scrutiny.
“DEFRA seems to be taking an extraordinarily complacent approach to protecting bees given the vital free service that pollinators provide to our economy,” she explained. “If farmers had to pollinate fruit and vegetables without the help of insects it would cost hundreds of millions of pounds and we would all be stung by rising food prices.”
DEFRA ministers have refused to back EU efforts to protect pollinators and “can’t even come up with a convincing plan to encourage bee-friendly farming in the UK”, she added.
Two-thirds of wild insect pollinator species – such as bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies, carrion flies, beetles, midges and moths – have suffered population declines in the UK. Managed honeybees have also experienced unusually high mortality rates, decreased fertility, increased susceptibility to disease and the loss of hives.
“We believe that the weight of scientific evidence now warrants precautionary action, so we are calling for a moratorium on pesticides linked to bee decline to be introduced by January 1st next year,” said Walley.
The Crop Protection Association, which represents many of the big agro-chemical companies, criticised the report. Chief executive Nick von Westenholz said it contained no new evidence to justify a call to suspend the use of some pesticides.
"Calls for a suspension of neonicotinoid insecticides are a disproportionate reaction to a complex problem and there is no evidence that such a move will lead to any meaningful improvement in bee health,” he said.
Commenting on the EAC’s claims of secrecy, he added: "The crop protection industry supports openness and transparency in the regulatory process but companies' intellectual property must be protected.”