Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:
"Honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate. This is very worrying and not just because the pollination of crops by honeybees is worth an estimated £200 million each year to the British economy. So it is difficult to understand why Defra has taken so little interest in the problem up to now.
"Additional money for research into honeybee health has been announced but the focus will include all pollinating insects. We need to know from the department what proportion of the funding is to be ring-fenced specifically for research into the causes of the decline in honeybee numbers.
"Defra must also deal with the problem that only about a half of all active beekeepers have chosen to register, thereby making themselves subject to routine inspections. Given that registration is not compulsory, as it is in some countries, Defra must make a concerted effort to persuade unregistered beekeepers to sign up to the register and inspection regime.
"That would give the department much better information on the incidence of bee disease and enable it to deliver advice on bee husbandry much more effectively.
"Defra faces similar difficulties in halting the rise in the number of diseases in livestock, of which bovine tuberculosis is currently the most serious. The truth is that the department is not enforcing the cattle testing regime rigorously. There are still no deterrents for farmers who fail to abide by basic good practice in biosecurity, despite a recommendation to that effect in our 2005 Foot and Mouth report. Defra has not helped by dragging its feet on agreeing with the farming industry what the minimum standards of biosecurity should be."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 36th report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department), examined what measures the Department is taking to prevent, identify and control notifiable diseases affecting livestock and honeybees.
Animal disease can have a significant impact on the farming industry and the wider rural economy. The incidence of Bovine Tuberculosis and of honeybee losses continues to increase, and the actions by the Department to tackle these issues cost £80 million and £1.5 million respectively in 2007–08. Whilst cattle and honeybees are plainly very different, the challenges facing the Department in halting the rising number of cases of disease are similar.
Around 39 commercial crops grown in Great Britain, with an estimated value of some £200 million a year to the agricultural economy, rely on insect pollination. There are around 250,000 colonies of honeybees in England and Wales. Beekeepers are reporting an increasing frequency of losses, a trend also reflected in findings from the Department’s inspections of hives.
There are four notifiable bee diseases and pests in England and Wales, and cold, wet weather may also be a factor in colony death. Reports of a new threat of Colony Collapse Disorder may be the result of a combination of factors, such as changes to habitat or food supply.
Despite their importance to the agricultural economy the Department has given little priority to bee health. In 2007–08, research expenditure in this field was just £200,000. In 2009, the Department announced that this sum is to be supplemented by an extra £2.5 million over five years, but this additional work to support the Department’s new Bee Health Strategy will be diluted by including research into other pollinator insects as well as honeybees.
Regular inspections of colonies enable the Department to monitor the health of colonies and the incidence of disease and parasites. Nearly 80% of cases of notifiable disease in England are identified through such inspections. The effectiveness of these inspections is hampered because around half of the estimated 37,000 active beekeepers in England have not joined the Department’s voluntary register, BeeBase.
In marked contrast to registered beekeepers, very few reports of notifiable disease are made by previously unregistered keepers. Scotland has little reported disease, with only three detected cases in the last ten years, compared with 8,071 in England and 463 in Wales.
Bovine Tuberculosis has a major foothold in England and Wales, particularly in the South West. Between 2002 and 2007, an average of 16,500 cattle were slaughtered each year as a result of the disease. The Department is not enforcing the cattle testing regime rigorously. The reservoir of disease in wild animal populations is thought to play a significant, although unquantifiable, role in disease incidence, but more rigorous bio-security measures might help to limit the impact.
The Department has made little progress in setting out recognised standards for bio-security and in sharing the costs of tackling disease with those farmers who do not maintain proper farm bio-security or who fail to practise good animal husbandry. This is despite recommendations arising from our examination of the Department’s handling of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001. Working more openly and effectively with farmers and local veterinarians, for example, by sharing farm level risk assessments, might help to limit incidence of notifiable disease.