Defra stands up for bees: 'No' to NFU's neonic application

Bee on oilseed rape flower. Photo: ejausberg via Pixabay (Public Domain).
Bee on oilseed rape flower. Photo: ejausberg via Pixabay (Public Domain).
A damning expert critique of the National Farmers Union's application to use banned bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticide seed treatment on a third of England's oilseed rape crop this autumn has forced the UK government to refuse the NFU's demand.
The Government's decision to reject this application is great news for Britain's bees. Allowing farmers to use banned bee-harming pesticides would have been a real threat to these crucial pollinators.

In a move that has surprised many observers, the UK government has refused an emergency application by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to use bee-harming 'neonic' seed treatments on a third of England's autumn-sown oilseed rape (OSR) crop, an area of 195,000 hectares.

A similar application last year was accepted by Defra, the UK's agriculture and environment department, allowing 5% of the autumn-sown winter OSR crop, some 30,000 hectares, to be planted with neonicotinoid-treated OSR seed, in the face of widespread protest.

The aim of the neonic seed treatment is to protect the OSR crops from damage by the Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB), which is developing resistance to alternative synthetic pyrethroid insecticides.

But in May 2013 the EU passed its Regulation 485/2013 restricting the neonicotinoids clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, and prohibiting the use and sale of seeds treated with them, following evidence of severe harm to bees.

The NFU's 2016 application for a 'derogation' from the regulation was to use thiamethoxam (Cruiser OSR) and clothianidin (Modesto). NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: "CSFB numbers have seen a dramatic increase since restrictions were imposed on the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments by the European Commission according to research published by Fera.

"The CSFB threat cannot be effectively addressed by any other means of pest control. Without access to these insecticides, farm businesses are unsustainable; farmers must be able to produce healthy and profitable crops."

Advisory group strongly recommended refusal

But the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP), which advises Defra on these issues, was unconvinced by these arguments and firmly advised refusal of the NFU's 'emergency derogation' request.

Had authorisation gone ahead in the face of this expert advice, a legal challenge would certainly have followed - especially given the severely critical analysis of the NFU's application offered by the ECP. Key points raised by their advice note include:

  • The "likely economic impact of preventable losses from CSFB was unclear from the evidence provided."
  • Information both within this application and more widely on the relationship between pest pressure and economic loss "was also lacking, an uncertainty currently unaddressed."
  • Survey data presented by the applicants showed "only a weak relationship between regional crop infestation by CSFB and regional patterns of crop damage and loss."
  • The data also showed that "relatively few fields assessed for damage from CSFB in any region reached guidance thresholds fortreatment, with no important differences between crops sown with treated and untreated seed."
  • There exist "no reliable methods available to predict which crops will be at greatest risk from CSFB attack prior to sowing the seed."
  • The NFU had provided "insufficient evidence to enable the ECP to determine an appropriate scale of use and where or how this should be targeted."
  • While it might possible to justify use of these products on the basis of CSFB resistance to alternative pesticides, "it would be difficult to define an area based on the information provided."
  • The proposed stewardship arrangements for the neonic-treated seed "offered insufficient assurance that use of any emergency authorisation would be appropriately 'controlled'."
  • The proposed stewardship arrangements "were not as robust as those used in 2015 for tracking treated seed through the supply chain".
  • Nor did they "appear to include a mechanism for prioritising agronomists' recommendations which would likely result in product being allocated on a 'first-come / first-served' basis rather than to areas of greatest need".
  • The criteria that agronomists would apply in deciding need for the neonic seeds "were not well defined and could vary widely in practice."
  • They would also "be challenging to define given scientific uncertainties that were unresolved by the data supplied."
  • The NFU "had not made sufficient opportunity of the emergency authorisations granted in 2015 to generate more robust information to enable better targeting of use."
  • The assessments accompanying the application "did not appear to have been subjected to any statistical analysis to enable estimates of the likely magnitudes of effects beyond chance."
  • That failure "made it difficult to assess the robustness of these data, particularly in terms of the different categories of damage, and be assured that use of any emergency authorisation would be appropriately limited'."

Accordingly the ECP concluded that "the applications do not meet the criteria for an emergency authorisation". The formal refusal was announced late yesterday by faming minister George Eustice.

The Government's decision to reject this application is great news for Britain's bees. Allowing farmers to use banned bee-harming pesticides would have been a real threat to these crucial pollinators.

Welcome decision - but now make the application public!

Friends of the Earth (FoE) bee campaigner Dave Timms welcomed the news: "The Government's decision to reject this application is great news for Britain's bees. Allowing farmers to use banned bee-harming pesticides would have been a real threat to these crucial pollinators."

Citing the ECP's "damning verdict on the applications", he added: "We hope the NFU will get the message and give up trying to bring back these dangerous chemicals." He also insisted that the NFU's applications and evidence, which are currently secret, "must be released immediately" and made available for public scrutiny.

Evidence submitted by FoE to the ECP also included data on last year's bumper OSR harvest, grown without neonic seed treatment. Final 2015 UK harvest data for oilseed rape show winter oilseed rape yield 13% above the 10-year average, while spring oilseed rape yield was up 25-30%. One Lincolnshire farmer set a new world record for oilseed rape yield.

"Oilseed rape yields have actually risen since the pesticide ban was introduced, while the evidence of the harm these chemicals pose to bees has increased", said Timms. Although not directly referred to in the ECP's decision, this information on last's year's exceptionally good OSR harvest may well have influenced its thinking on the matter.

The harvest data directly conflict with the NFU's claim that the damage caused by CSFB in 2015 "has contributed to a reduced area planted with oilseed rape in England, estimated at 10-14 per cent down in the 2015-16 season." Meanwhile David Walston - who farms in a 'hotspot' for CSFB in Cambridgeshire - is opting to control flea beetle in his crop using 'companion planting' with other plants that naturally repel the pest.

ClientEarth Toxics lawyer Vito Buonsante said: "This decision is a victory for bees and EU law and it bucks the trend of lenience towards industry: 46 derogations have been granted in the EU since laws to ban neonics were passed in 2013, threatening disaster for bee populations.

"We're heartened to see Ministers scrutinising evidence and staying strong in the face of derogation requests - we urge Ministers to resist pressure from pesticide producers and give priority to protecting bees in all pesticides decisions, as EU law requires."

Friends of the Earth is now calling on the Chemicals Regulation Directorate to immediately publish the results of the split-field study it commissioned - as a condition of the successful NFU application for neonicotinoid use last year, comparing crop losses of neonicotinoid-treated oilseed rape with untreated oilseed rape.



Oliver Tickell is Contributing Editor at The Ecologist.

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