On 8th January the UK Government took a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for our insects. This was to allow farmers to treat sugar beet seed with the banned substance thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid, as an emergency option to help against the beet yellows virus.
Neonicotinoids, or “neonics”, are among the most widely-used pesticides in the World and were recently banned across much of Europe, including the UK, after an increasing body of evidence showed them linked to declines in bees and other pollinators. Scientist Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, has said that a single teaspoon is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees. And when we look at the catastrophic declines in insects – 41% threatened with extinction – and the dire consequences for the countless birds, other animals and plants that rely on them for pollination or as a food source, it’s perhaps unsurprising that environmental concerns won the day.
Or so we thought.
Conservation is never that straightforward though, and the Sugar Beet Industry and the National Farmer Union saw things rather differently. When the beet yellows virus caused significant problems for the sector in 2020 following an exceptionally mild winter, they saw the threat of ruined harvests, incomes foregone, the possibility of some sugar beet farmers even going out of business. These groups secretly lobbied government for a ‘derogation’ or permission to circumvent the rules. And the Government has bowed to the pressure.
The decision goes directly against a firm commitment given by the then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove three years ago, and there was absolutely no consultation with other groups. But perhaps the Government’s decision is simply a pragmatic response in difficult circumstances, allowing farmers to take proportionate measures in the face of a real threat? Should we be worried? And even if we are, should we be resisting a reasonable compromise between the needs of insects and those of farmers?
In a word, yes, and for at least three very good reasons:
First, while coating seeds with thiamethoxam may sound like a relatively benign activity, especially compared to spraying crops, it is anything but. Up to 94% of the coating applied finds its way into the soil and much of that ultimately into water courses. Not enough is yet known of the impacts on the soil. What is known is that tiny amounts of this highly toxic chemical will kill invertebrates living in the soil and will do so indiscriminately. We also know that our soils are astonishingly rich in life. Dig down into one square metre of the brown stuff and you could find billions of bacteria and protozoa, millions of nematodes, hundreds of thousands of mites, tens of thousands of springtails and rotifiers, and thousands of insects, myriapods and spiders, to say nothing of slugs and earthworms. Cuddly and charismatic critters? Probably not, but their combined exertions mean that our soils can breathe, store, recycle, nourish, filter and regulate in ways we are only beginning to understand. If we want to protect our living systems, we would do well to start by looking after our soils.
Secondly, this kind of prophylactic use of chemicals is the very antithesis of the precautionary principle. It is not a targeted use to counter an actual problem, such as spot spraying a clump of Japanese Knotweed growing in a hedgebank. It is the farm scale – and sometimes landscape scale – application of a toxic chemical in the anticipation of a threat that might appear in the future. And if the threat does materialise, the chemical won’t tackle the virus itself, its target is the insects that are thought to assist in its spread. Whether such pre-emptive chemical strikes would control the virus is yet to be seen.
The only certainty is that insects and other invertebrates will be killed and on a large scale.
Thirdly, it is poorly thought through. In response to concerns raised about insects, farmers are being advised to spray off and kill wild vegetation around the fields with treated seed. Apart from the damage to the wild plants themselves, these marginal habitats are vital for insects, and their massive loss in recent decades is generally considered to be one of the biggest causes of insect and farmland bird declines. So it would appear that the strategy to avoid killing insects directly is simply to poison and kill off their food supply. In other words, a double whammy.
Finally, this kind of decision risks being the thin end of the wedge. If the use of toxic chemicals is permitted whenever there is potential disease threat, why not apply them in other cases and to other crops? When the neonics ban was first introduced in the UK there was uproar from some in the farming sector about the destruction that would be caused to oil seed rape. In the event, there was a record harvest that year. But the point is, that in a system dominated by monocultures there will always be threats of disease and the temptation to take environmentally destructive pre-emptive action. There needs to be a way off this treadmill.
Frustrating as this situation is for those of us concerned about insects, it would be wrong to dismiss the farmers’ concerns, which are very real. Simply ignoring a problem like this will cost livelihoods, and may even cost conservation as there are many wildlife-minded sugar beet farmers out there. But this is a classic instance of the Government taking the wrong decision by listening only to the immediate concerns of one group, rather than thinking about the long-term interests of society and the natural environment that sustains us. The widespread use of blunt chemical instruments does not make sense even from an agricultural perspective. It will merely kill off beneficial insects and make farmers ever more reliant on expensive, carbon hungry inputs as our soils and natural pest controls become increasingly degraded.
Ways to tackle diseases like like beet yellows virus can and must be found. But a long-term solution means moving away from short-term chemical fixes and an obsession with maximising crop yield. And for this to happen we need government policy to drive the agricultural industry in a different direction; providing financial incentives, guidance and assurance where it is needed, and funding research into less destructive disease and pest management techniques. Above all, we need to move beyond a binary debate about farm incomes versus the environment, to one that puts a resilient agriculture at the centre of our landscape, our soils and our wildlife’s rejuvenation.