Bees and pesticides drop out of the Environment Bill

Wednesday 27th October 2021

Yesterday the House of Lords chose not to vote on an amendment that would have put into law a guarantee of an informed pollinator risk assessment prior to any pesticide approval decisions.  Having previously voted for improved bee and pollinator protection, the wishes of the House of Lords were rejected by the Conservative Party in the Commons, and the clause ran out of momentum when it came back to the Lords.

Buglife would like to thank the Liberal Democrat front bench for tabling the Protecting Pollinators from Pesticides amendment and for the support the amendment got from the Labour Party front bench, Green Party, Democratic Unionist Party and others.  We are especially grateful to the 4,000 members of the public who wrote to their MPs asking them to save bees, and to the 65,000 people who signed a petition to the Environment Secretary George Eustice MP, a farmer, asking him to protect pollinators from pesticides. Their efforts have significantly increased awareness among Parliamentarians of the shortcomings in the pesticide approval process and have highlighted that they are now responsible for those shortcomings; no more hiding difficult pesticide decisions behind the EU in a secret-vote committee!

Zac Goldsmith was representing the Government position on the Bill and amendments in the Lords.  Watching the debate yesterday I saw Environment Minister Richard Benyon sitting next to Zac and recalled meeting Richard in 2013 when he was pesticide minister, he said ‘It must look as if we are in the pockets of the pesticide industry’.  He was right then and it looked just as applicable yesterday.

Pesticide regulation is a fortress. In fact at least in 2012 the Government position was that the pesticide approval process was deficient because it did not consider long-term harm to honeybees, and from then to 2020 the UK was party to a process that aimed to improve the approval process so that it would include tests for long-term harm and harm to wild bees (a process that continues and grows in the EU).  The refusal of the Government to acknowledge that the current process results in the approval of pesticides that destroy bee and pollinator populations is a sad and regressive outcome.

The amendment only asked Government to gather information about environmental risks that would help them to achieve their stated legal commitment to not approve pesticides that significantly harm the environment, and to bring the process out into public view. There has been no concession from the Government.

Vague Ministerial statements were made about the Healthy Bees Plan and National Pollinator Strategy – despite the fact that both of these plans explicitly refuse to address the impacts of pesticides on pollinators.  Further vague statements about the draft National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, due to be published in the next few weeks, offered nothing tangible for pollinator safety.   “Designing pesticides out of farming systems as far as we can possibly achieve” sounds funky, but is whimsical, this has been everyone’s stated intention for years, even Bayer says this, but the sales keep going up.  Talk of using ‘precision technologies’  is pesticide industry code for promoting seed treatments over sprays – i.e. the very technology – neonicotinoid seed treatments – that has most clearly highlighted the failings of the system! “We will assess the use of pesticides in the round and their impact of course on the natural environment” is just a legal pre-requisite of producing a National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, and will result in no new evidence collation, review, recommendations or public consultation before the NAP is produced next month. “We are developing new metrics to better understand the pressures that pesticides put on the environment and will use these tools to target the most toxic pesticides.” if backed by new process and enforcement this could make a difference, but the problem with all post approval action is that it relies on data that has not been gathered.  The metrics assessing harm are only as good as the data going into them, so older pesticides tend to be targeted because they score worse simply because there is more evidence available, while newer substances are shiny and free from a build-up of incriminating evidence; this is good for innovation and big pesticide companies because it gets rid of pesticides as they reach the end of their patents, but means that more novel chemicals with unknown environmental impacts are encouraged – we want to stop the treadmill of the approval of pesticides that harm pollinators, not speed it up!

© Jamie Spensley
A carder bee, shot by Jamie Spensley, the Luminar Young Bug Photographer of the Year 2020. The shot is composed of 41 separate images, called a ‘focus-stack’ to counter the shallow depth of field that extreme macro photographs suffer from.

The test for me is ‘could the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides prevent a repeat of the neonicotinoid disaster?’  I don’t think it could, what measure in a use plan would have stopped 10 years of universal treatment of Oilseed rape and Sugar beet seeds, and increasingly cereals, with pervasive, persistent and ecologically disastrous insecticides?

We need targeted action, as well as general commitments, because I suspect that reduced use will just mean lighter, more toxic chemicals, and easy wins, such as reducing use of herbicide desiccants in autumn, a use of minimal concern for pollinators.

The need to improve the protection of pollinators from pesticides is fundamental to the principle of preventing harm to the environment, this Government has not taken the opportunity presented to it to save bees. We can only cross our fingers and hope that we don’t get too many devastating new toxins approved, that will cause decades of harm to bees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths, before someone takes responsibility and introduces the all-important pollinator safety tests.

To support Buglife’s continued determined efforts on this and other key invertebrate conservation issues please join our ‘No Insectinction’ campaign.