On 8 January, the government overturned a pesticide ban on a product containing a chemical thiamethoxam for use on sugar beet seeds, due to the potential threat of a virus. Extensive lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union, and British Sugar, encouraged the government to authorise a temporary, short term (at most 120 day) lift of the ban, which the government’s decision argued to appear “necessary because of a danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”.
Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions to advocate for the pesticide ban
At the time, The Wildlife Trusts threatened to take legal action over the use of the pesticide, as studies show it damages both pollinators and aquatic life. Hundreds of thousands of people also signed petitions to advocate for the pesticide ban. The pesticide ban had initially come into place in 2018, after EU member states supported a near-total neonicotinoids ban.
Professor Dave Goulson, an ecological specialist of bees and other insects at the University of Sussex, slammed the decision as “foolish”, arguing it puts “short term economic gain before the health of the environment”.
Bees and other pollinators are essential to pollinate the majority of crops; trends suggest a third of British wild bees and hoverflies are in decline, which is a major concern. Thiamethoxam is a neonicotinoid, a type of insecticide chemically similar to nicotine, and is believed to pose a threat to pollinators including bees. According to Professor Goulson, even minute quantities of neonicotinoids can impair the navigation of bees and suppress bees’ immune systems.
As of this month, the product was banned again, as the colder weather puts sugar beet crops at less risk of the beet yellow virus. At the time, Dave Goulson suggested on Twitter that there was little action individuals could take against the specific decision to allow farmers to use the pesticide. However, he did note that writing to MPs in protest, and voting for parties with the greenest policies in the next election, are concrete actions you can take to prevent a similar situation occurring.
The uproar caused by the lifting of the ban, and the government’s pragmatic decision to side with farming lobbyists, demonstrate how controversial and tricky these environmental choices are. Looking to the future, it will be important to ensure alternative measures are able to alleviate the threats to which vulnerable species are subjected. Ultimately, pesticide bans are incredibly important and the government should be ensuring they protect the environment, rather than protecting short term economic gain.