Neonics, Brexit and beyond

Bee on red flower

A bee on a flower at the permaculture garden, Tapeley Park, Devon. 

The Ecologist
The expected ban on neonicotinoids to protect bees has rightly created a lot of buzz. But will Michael Gove as environment secretary ignore the chemicals industry lobby and retain regulations after Brexit? MOLLY SCOTT CATO, a Green party MEP, counsels vigilance

I fear that industry-funded studies will become the backbone of UK policymaking on pesticides and environmental legislation in the coming years.

Bees across Europe can take a buzz of relief: it now looks likely there will be a total ban on harmful neonicotinoid pesticides before the year is out.

Last week, MEPs from the Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee in the European Parliament, voted unanimously to safeguard our valuable pollinators from destructive noenicitinoids in a report on the Prospects and Challenges in the Apiculture Sector.

The European Commission look set to follow suit and implement a total ban on the harmful pesticides, that have been shown to decimate bees and other pollinating insects. Noenicitinoids are already banned on flowering crops in EU countries.

Record on pesticides

This move has been far less publicised than Michael Gove’s announcement late last year that he plans to ban neonicotinoids in the UK.

Many were cautiously delighted to hear that, after years of campaigning, an environment minister was willing to sound the death knell on these toxins.

Noenicitinoids have been proven to alter bees’ navigation ability – vital for tracking down the pollen that is their key food source – as well as hampering their ability to fly.

Large scale field trials have shown conclusively that these pesticides have led to overall decline in the numbers of bees and other insects.

But before the bees get too carried away, let’s not lose sight of the Tories' record on pesticides and environmental legislation.

Public domain

To understand the generalised scepticism around Gove’s new-found love of bees we have to look back only as far as 2013, when his good friend, and then environment secretary, Owen Paterson, tried to block the European Commission’s proposal to restrict the use of neonics.

That attempt failed, but in 2015 the government gagged its own Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) after they refused to back an application by the National Farmers Union to lift the EU ban on bee-harming chemicals.

Defra blocked the publication of minutes from a meeting on whether to authorise the use of neonics on rapeseed crops for ‘emergency’ use.

The government subsequently granted the use of these harmful chemicals on oil rapeseed crops. Given the record of successive Tory governments, we have to question who will be calling the shots on pesticides post-Brexit.

I fear that industry-funded studies will become the backbone of UK policymaking on pesticides and environmental legislation in the coming years.

Will Defra, the NFU and the ECP publish what they wish to and withhold anything that they don’t want in the public domain?

Precautionary approach

The UK’s pesticide experts have since reviewed scientific evidence. In October last year they advised the government that the ‘extension of the current restrictions [on neonicotinoids] could be justified’ based on new scientific evidence that has emerged.

This is a positive development of sorts, but we should beware the agri-lobby, who are constantly circling like angry bees ready to pounce.

On the one hand they claim a lack of ‘science-based’ research, while on the other they seize upon industry-funded studies claiming a substance to be safe for use in agricultural production.

This is where the precautionary principle is so important - and why Greens are deeply concerned that the amendment to include this fundamentally important legal principle, enshrined in EU law, never even got to be discussed or voted on during debates on the EU Withdrawal Bill.

We have to remain sceptical of Gove et al who have heeded the warnings made by scientists and NGOs on neonicotinoids but refuse to adopt the precautionary approach towards other harmful substances.

New chemicals

As the government slowly unveil their plans for post-Brexit environmental legislation, we have to read between the blurred lines. For instance, the 'commitments' laid out in the 25-year plan on biodiversity, plastic waste reduction and air quality are vague at best.

On chemicals regulation the lack of mention of the REACH (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction) programme is deeply worrying. This could signal the government's intention to rebuff expertise and regulation from the EU on chemicals and pesticides.

With no regulatory Body in sight to replace the European Chemicals and Health Agency (ECHA) what is to stop the agri-chemical companies having a ‘field day’; letting loose a range of new chemicals that will further destroy insect populations?

There are serious questions of competence and capacity at government level after the UK has left the EU. Over the decades, the EU has developed complex and thorough (albeit flawed) mechanisms for evaluating and authorising chemical substances that find their way into our food chain and into other products that we consume.

The EU evaluates pesticides through its REACH programme, under which the EU has the largest database on the properties of chemical substances in the world.

Protective legislation

According to the ECHA, “the United Kingdom will no longer have access to [those] databases or participate in... regulatory, enforcement coordination or other processes” after Brexit.

Where will the government source its research and expertise now? Will the UK have to rely on its own government-funded institutes, or contract studies from elsewhere?

And how much will this cost? I fear that industry-funded studies will become the backbone of UK policymaking on pesticides and environmental legislation in the coming years.

Against the background of a government that has repeatedly blocked protective legislation at EU level; has done nothing to defend the precautionary principle, and has no plan for a system of chemicals regulation outside the EU, is it any wonder that Greens greet Gove’s new green pose with such scepticism?

This Author

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England and sits on the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee.

More from this author