Should we ‘bee’ banning pollinator-harming pesticides?

Maud Webster looks at the government's decision to reverse controversial pesticide use

Maud Webster
17th March 2021
Image Credit: Edited from Wikipedia
At the beginning of March, the government decided to reverse its contentious decision to lift a ban on a bee-harming pesticide, because sugar beet crop was at risk of beet yellow virus. The past couple of months have shed light on the delicate balance between appeasing both farmers’ and environmental concerns, and the government’s role mediating between the two. 

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.

Image Credit: Shalom Tse

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”.

Writing to MPs in protest and voting for parties with the greenest policies are concrete actions individuals can take to prevent future decisions in favour of damaging pesticides

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.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
(She / Her) Second-year Architecture & Planning student at Newcastle University, and arts sub-editor for the 20/21 academic year.

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