Legal challenge explored against neonicotinoid use

The Wildlife Trusts explore legal challenge to Government decision to allow emergency use of neonicotinoid
Emergency authorisation was refused in 2018 – what’s changed?

Today The Wildlife Trusts’ lawyers have contacted the Environment Secretary, George Eustice to question his decision to allow the emergency use of the banned Neonicotinoid Thiamethoxam for sugar beet. The Wildlife Trusts believe the action may have been unlawful and are planning a legal challenge to the decision unless Government can prove otherwise.

In 2018 the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides refused a similar application because of unacceptable environmental risks.* The Wildlife Trusts contend that no new evidence has been provided to support the Government’s decision and therefore the ban should stay. Our intention isn't to alienate farmers; we are want to hold the NFU and Government to account. Farmers are simply following guidelines set by regulators.

Additionally, The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Environment Secretary has not proved that there is no alternative to using neonicotinoids; nor has he explained what action he is taking to ensure the emergency authorisation is not repeated indefinitely. The Wildlife Trusts are deeply concerned that the current derogation applies for three years and that further derogations could be allowed for a further block of three years.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“We are preparing to take legal action unless the Government can prove it acted lawfully.  The Government refused a request for emergency authorisation in 2018 and we want to know what’s changed. Where’s the new evidence that it’s ok to use this extremely harmful pesticide?

“Using neonicotinoids not only threatens bees but is also extremely harmful to aquatic wildlife because the majority of the pesticide leaches into soil and then into waterways. Worse still, farmers are being recommended to use weedkiller to kill wildflowers in and around sugar beet crops in a misguided attempt to prevent harm to bees in the surrounding area. This is a double blow for nature.

“Only 5% of this toxic neonicotinoid goes where it is wanted in the crop; most ends up in the soil where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers, and also ends up in our rivers, potentially affecting other insects and wildlife.

“This comes at a time when the Government has yet again delayed the vitally important Environment Bill, and which once more highlights the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Government’s commitment to restoring nature and tacking the twin nature and climate crises.

“Over 56,000 people have signed The Wildlife Trusts’ petition in the last few days to ask the Prime Minister to overturn the neonics decision, and 40,000 people have emailed their MP. Every single MP has been emailed by a constituent on this matter.”

Sugar beet farmers who will be allowed to use seeds dressed with the pesticide will be preparing for this year’s crop shortly, The Wildlife Trusts are seeking a response from George Eustice as a matter of urgency.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids were developed in the 1980's as a commercial insecticide and began being commonly used in agriculture through the 1990's. They are now the most widely used pesticide on the planet. There are a number of them available, including Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam. Just tiny doses can have catastrophic impacts on pollinators; as little as one teaspoon of Thiamethoxam is enough to kill over 1 billion bees.

Neonics function by blocking neurotransmitters in insects, which leads to paralysis and eventual death. The compounds are carried back to colonies through the collection of nectar, so they have the potential to wipe out entire populations in a very short time period. The application of neonics means that much of the chemical ends up in soil, which drains into watercourses and our own water sources. They do not appear to be as harmful to mammals, but there is currently no solid research that presents the long-term impacts of them on other creatures. 

We need pollinators, but they are under threat from all angles: mites, viruses, and habitat loss are all playing their part in the decline of bees. The continued use of deadly chemicals will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to reverse this decline and ensure that populations do not collapse completely.

Editor's notes

- In 2018, the UK sugar beet industry submitted an application for an emergency authorisation for the use of “Poncho Beta” and “Cruiser SB” as seed treatments on sugar beet. The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) refused the application on the grounds that there were a number of unacceptable environmental risks associated with the use of these products (specifically unacceptable effects to bees in following crops and flowering plants in field margins, birds and mammals eating seedlings from treated seed and birds consuming pelleted seed, and the impact of concentrations of thiamethoxam in surface waters on populations of aquatic insects), and these would be concentrated in areas planted to sugar beet. More here

- Analysis of official data by Buglife shows that 74% of the UK water sites monitored were contaminated with neonicotinoids. Chronic neonicotinoid pollution levels were exceeded in East Anglian and Lincolnshire rivers.  Analysis of official data by Buglife in 2017 found that 88% of samples in Britain were contaminated with neonicotinoids.

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White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) (c) Nick Upton/2020VISION

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Red-tailed bumblebee (c) Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography