The Government must introduce a precautionary moratorium on three pesticides linked to the decline of pollinators - imidacloprid, clothianidin and TMX – that suspends their use on flowering crops attractive to pollinators, Parliament’s cross-party green watchdog has said.
The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley MP, commented:
“Defra seems to be taking an extraordinarily complacent approach to protecting bees given the vital free service that pollinators provide to our economy.
“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.”
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. Similar trends have been observed in the US and other European countries.
Disease, habitat loss and climate change can all affect insect populations, but a growing body of peer-reviewed research suggests that the use of one group of insecticides is having an especially damaging impact on pollinators — neonicotinoids. Applied to seeds, these systemic pesticides are widely used in the UK on oilseed rape, cereals, maize, sugar beet and crops grown in glasshouses.
Joan Walley MP said:
“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 1 January next year.
“This allows farmers to use treated seeds that have already been purchased for this growing season and gives Defra time to implement EU legislation on the sustainable use of pesticides.
Authorities in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have already suspended the use of certain neonicotinoids. The European Commission has also proposed an EU-wide moratorium on the use of imidacloprid, clothianidin and TMX on crops attractive to bees, following a recent risk warning from the European Food Safety Authority.
The UK has refused to take domestic action or to support the EU proposal.
Many of the UK's largest garden retailers, including B&Q, Wickes and Homebase, have voluntarily withdrawn non-professional plant protection products that contain neonicotinoids. The report recommends a full ban on the sale of neonicotinoids for public domestic use, which could create an urban safe haven for pollinators.
Joan Walley MP said:
“The Government should follow the UK’s leading garden retailers in recognising that action needs to be taken to save our bees. There is no justification for people continuing to use these products on their Dahlias when they could be having a detrimental effect on pollinator populations.
“Banning the sale of neonicotinoids for domestic use would at least create an urban safe haven for bees."
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. 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 report warns that this lack of transparency is preventing a fuller understanding of the problem. The MPs call 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 should help companies establish which genuinely commercially sensitive details need to be redacted to make this possible.
Joan Walley MP added:
"Pesticide companies often try to pick holes in studies linking their products to bee decline, but when pushed to publish their own research and safety studies they hide behind claims of commercial sensitivity.
"The industry must open itself to greater academic scrutiny if it wants to justify its continued opposition to the precautionary protection of pollinators.”
The Government's National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides published earlier this year was a missed opportunity, according to the Committee.
Clearer targets are needed to reduce reliance on pesticides as far as possible. And Integrated Pest Management – which emphasizes alternatives to pesticides, but does not preclude their use – should be made the central principle of the plan.
Joan Walley MP concluded:
“More research is needed to monitor pollinator populations and establish the impact that particular pesticides are having, but Defra must not use this as an excuse to avoid urgent precautionary action.”