The government has already indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet in future years.
The cold winter has been bad news for crop pests and good news for sugar beet farmers and the UK Government.
Ministers came under considerable fire for allowing the sugar beet industry an emergency authorisation to use banned bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides.
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So the Tory government must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that recent low temperatures killed aphids off in sufficient numbers that the chemicals will not be needed after all.
But the reprieve is only temporary.
British Sugar, which has a monopoly over the industry, has already said that it is likely apply for emergency authorisation to use the pesticides again over the next two years, citing a lack of suitable alternatives to the banned pesticides, and the potential for devastating loss of crops from a disease called Virus Yellows, which is transmitted by aphids.
Campaigners are horrified that the door has been left open for future use of a pesticide that has been found to cause severe harm to pollinating insects, many species of which are disappearing from Great Britain.
Considerable concerns remain over the way in which the government decided to authorise the emergency use of the pesticide known as Cruiser SB, and whether the government and sugar industry are doing enough to support farmers to find alternatives to prevent the virus harming their crops.
British Sugar’s control of the industry has left many farmers with little choice but to keep farming the crop, despite declining prices and increasing costs. The firm’s support for gene editing as a possible way to speed up the development of alternative crop breeds has also raised eyebrows.
Cruiser SB contains a neonicotinoid called thiamethoxam, which a series of major international scientific studies found posed an acute and long-term risk to the survival of bees and other pollinating insects.
Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, meaning they are absorbed into every part of a plant. When bees feed on a plant’s pollen or nectar, the chemical affects their nervous systems, motor function, feeding, navigation, foraging and reproduction.
In 2013, the EU prohibited its use on flowering crops, which excluded sugar beet. But the ban was extended to all outdoor use in 2018 after further research revealed its impact on the wider environment, including that it enters the soil and is taken up by neighbouring wildflowers, and that it damages water quality in rivers.
However, the neonicotinoid can be permitted in an emergency to tackle a danger that cannot be addressed by any other means. Farmers from other EU countries including Belgium, Denmark and Spain have also been granted emergency authorisations to use neonicotinoids.
In January, Defra announced its decision that farmers of sugar beet – a root crop used to produce sugar grown mostly in the east of England – would be allowed to use Cruiser SB under an emergency authorisation while the industry found alternative solutions to tackle Virus Yellows.
The decision followed a slump in average harvests of sugar beet by 20-25 percent in 2020, following an outbreak of the virus that the National Farmers’ Union Sugar Board called the “worst in living memory”. The union had lobbied hard for the emergency authorisation to bring back use of neonicotinoids, telling farmers it was “moving heaven and earth” to secure it.
The emergency authorisation had strict conditions attached, for example, prohibiting any flowering crop being planted in the same field within 22 months of sugar beet, or 32 for oil seed rape.
In its application for emergency use, the sugar beet industry told the government it was finding alternative methods to protect the crops without the use of seed treatments, including developing resistant plant varieties, and new practices for growers such as planting other crops that were more attractive to aphids than sugar beet.Defra cited these plans in its decision to authorise the emergency use of Cruiser SB, saying the industry was already delivering on them.
The sugar beet industry’s application also said it would forecast the risk to crops from aphids, and if less than nine per cent of the crop was predicted to be lost, it would not use the pesticide. This was the reason for the government’s announcement in March that neonicotinoids would not be used this year after all.
But Tom Clarke, a sugar beet farmer from Cambridgeshire, and a member of the NFU Sugar Board, confirmed that future applications for emergency use were likely. “We are desperately searching for new ways,” he said. “We didn’t apply to use neonicotinoids because we want them back, it’s just a holding position, otherwise the industry will be unviable. We’ll only need to use them for a few years.”
Processing factories and the specialised machinery used by sugar beet growers could not just lie idle while an alternative solution was found, he said. In the meantime, sugar beet would be imported instead either from Europe where they are using neonicotinoids, or from tropical countries like Brazil or Australia, which would give it a large carbon footprint from transport, he said.
Clarke, who backs the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, but also the emergency and controlled use of them in this instance, explained that climate change was making life very challenging for sugar beet farmers, with dry springs when seeds are planted and very wet autumns when harvests were lifted.
Warmer winters meant that aphids were less likely to die off as they had done in the past, he said. “Last year we had more than four times the highest level ever recorded for aphids surviving the winter because it was so mild,” he said.
However, campaignersargue that the government should never have given the green light to neonicotinoids, even with conditions, since this went against the recommendations of its own expert advisors.
The Wildlife Trusts questioned the legality of the decision, saying that the secretary of state had not provided any new evidence or analysis that justified reversing the 2018 decision to ban thiamethoxam.
In documents obtained by Friends of the Earth through Environmental Information Regulations, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which regulates the use of pesticides in the UK, concluded that emergency use “does not demonstrate a safe use in the scientific risk assessment”, and recommended the application be refused.
It also advised that the risk to bees from crops grown in the same field following the sugar beet was not acceptable, both in terms of pollen and nectar from flowering crops, and through drinking the sap from maize crops. It also warned that the risk to bees from crops grown in the same field following the sugar beet could last more than 22 months.
Defra’s chief scientific advisor (CSA) stated that the evidence of environmental damage from neonicotinoid use is clear, and that keeping its use to “an absolute minimum” would be critical to support population recovery of bees and other species.
Though he did not make any recommendation to refuse or approve the application, he suggested that a longer period between the treated sugar beet and the planting of flowering crops would reduce the risk to bees.
The CSA also acknowledged that weather conditions that led to record levels of aphids in 2020 were likely to reoccur due to climate change, and that even by 2022, new strains of sugar beet seed would only be partially resistant to the virus.
Sandra Bell, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Despite strong scientific evidence about the risks involved, the government has already indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet in future years.”
FoE has vowed to oppose any attempt to bring the pesticides back into the fields. It argues that the government and industry must redouble efforts to find alternatives.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the secretary of state’s assessment of how the application had met all legal requirements was set out in its announcement approving the application to use neonicotinoids.
She added that the sugar industryhad demonstrated that finding permanent alternatives to the pesticide was a priority.
British Sugar is the only processor of sugar beet in the UK, and as such has a monopoly on the industry. Growers must select seeds from an annual list approved by British Sugar.
Sugar beet growers are contracted to grow a particular area of crop, and paid a price set by British Sugar, and fixed in advance, when growers can choose the length of contract, which are usually for one or three years, with higher prices paid to those in longer contracts.
Prices paid to growers have plummeted, from around £34 per tonne 20 years ago to £20-22 a tonne for 2020. Many have stopped growing sugar beet due to these low prices, combined with the rising costs of producing it, and risks of virus yellows.
Even some tied in by multi-year agreements are tempted to quit, though it would be a breach of contract, Clarke said. “Being forced by a multi-national company whose profits are up to actually lose money by growing a crop - that would be an interesting court case,” he said.
British Sugar says it has put in place a support package for its growers after last year’s disastrous harvests, including a guaranteed minimum market-linked bonus, cashflow support, and a £12 million fund for those whose crop was impacted.
In an email, a spokesperson said: “Following the terrible season we will see how we can respond to the concerns raised by our growers with fresh commercial proposals for future years.”
Growers also pay a levy on a percentage of their crop that goes towards research on sugar beet through the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), which is joint funded by theNFU. British Sugar also provides £1 million a year to the BBRO, which is researching solutions to Virus Yellows.
One of the biggest challenges is that there are actually three varieties of the virus, and it has not been possible so far to find a gene that can provide resistance against all of them, according to professor Mark Stevens, the BBRO’s head of science.
“What we've done over many years is identify minor genes and breed those in to try and give some protection,” he said.
This has had some success, and in 2022, a sugar beet seed variety with partial resistance to Virus Yellows will be available to growers for the first time, along with five others British Sugar has given growers to choose from. However, Stevens acknowledged it had a drawback – its yield will be lower than standard varieties.
Clarke questioned whether growers would opt to grow it. Farmers at a high risk of virus would probably choose not to grow sugar beet at all, and those with a low risk could choose a higher-yielding variety, knowing that if they lost some to the virus, their yield would not be much different to growing the lower-yielding variety.
The partially-resistant variety was a stepping stone, according to Stevens. The BBRO is working with breeders on other varieties with resistance to all three types of the virus, he said. “We will get there I'm sure, but the problem with breeding any trait into sugar beet is that it can take 12-15 years to identify it, consolidate it, breed it in and make it commercially available,” he said.
The BBRO is also conducting research on how farmers can attract other insects that eat aphids – such as lacewing, spiders and ladybirds – to sugar beet fields.
The difficulty is ensuring that these insects are present at the same time as the aphids, so farmers will need to grow particular types of flower to attract them and keep them in the field with the crop, Stevens said. The insects can also be bought from specialist companies to top up those already present in a field, so studies to assess the success of this strategy are also being carried out, he said.
“You can build up levels of beneficial insects, or propagate them, it's just trying to build it up to a commercial level,” Stevens said. Often price can be offputting, but growers are becoming more open-minded to trying these strategies, he added.
But campaigners and farmers do not believe that finding alternatives to neonicotinoids is a priority for British Sugar. Many believe that work should have started far earlier.
Matt Shardlow, chief executive of insect campaign group Buglife pointed out that it started warning of the links between neonicotinoid and the health of bees and insects in 2009. The original ban, which came into effect in 2013, covered only flowering crops, so the non-flowering sugar beet was omitted. Nevertheless “the writing should have been on the wall” for sugar beet at that point, he said.
“This has been coming for so long - it beggars belief that the sugar industry is so unprepared for the ban that they’re having to scrabble around trying to find chemical solutions to the problem,” he said.
Martin Lines, a Cambridgeshire farmer and chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said that British Sugar’s monopoly position and the pressure it has put on prices was exacerbating the impact of crop losses from virus yellows.
“It's a very closed shop, buyers are told what their price will be, and the price is being continuously eroded while the costs are going up. So actually, as a farmer you can't afford to lose any of the crop, because there's no margin left in it,” Lines said.
“Ten years ago, the margin was a lot better, so if you lost a bit, it didn't really matter. It becomes a very, very closed loop when there's no other markets for the product,” he said.
Peter Lundgren, a Lincolnshire farmer, used to grow sugar beet but gave up several years ago, due to the low prices British Sugar paid for the crop, and because he did not like working with the company as it did not allow its growers to stop using seeds treated with neonicotinoids.
“British Sugar is a monopoly processor – growers can only buy seeds and get their crop turned into sugar through the company.It company insisted that the seeds had neonicotinoid treatment,” he said.
British Sugar also controls all research on sugar beet, through its funding of the BBRO, which it runs jointly with the NFU. “Farmers can only make changes to practice where the research and science leads us, but our only route forward is dictated through a monopoly processor,” Lundgren said.
For Lundgren, “the writing was on the wall” for neonicotinoids years ago. He is critical of the sugar industry’s lack of progress in finding alternatives. Oil seed rape farmers used to have a similar problem with another virus transmitted by aphids, but there are now some varieties of this that are now tolerant to that, he pointed out.
“What would have been nice is if British Sugar had asked the seed industry 15 years ago to come forward with a variety that was tolerant to the virus in sugar beet. They could have also asked the chemical industry to bring forward a product that doesn’t kill beneficial insects.
“That’s where the finger of blame can be pointed at British Sugar – it has such control over this industry, and yet failed to anticipate the problem, and to initiate research that would bring a solution. But its attitude is to just run to the government for an emergency authorisation for neonicotinoids,” he said.
“No government is going to tell ABF to go away,” Lundgren added, referring to the fact that British Sugar’s parent company is Associated British Foods (ABF), a FTSE-100 corporation
According to Stevens, work on breeding varieties of sugar beet that are resistant to virus yellows has been ongoing for 30 years. However, he admitted that this was not prioritised due to the availability of neonicotinoids.
“We had treatments that were widely accepted and adopted and known to work - it stifled innovation in looking for alternatives. But now we've got a situation where we need those alternatives, we're trying to get them into the crop as fast as possible,” he said.
Clarke also acknowledges the lack of priority given to finding non-pesticide solutions once neonicotinoids became available in the 1990s. “They were so effective, and relatively cheap. They solved the problem in one go, so we stopped looking for other ways. That was before anyone knew that they were potentially dangerous to pollinators,” he said.
But neither the UK government, nor British Sugar, was providing sufficient financial support to help farmers make the transition to alternative farming methods, Clarke said. The beneficial insect trials on his fields were being funded by the French government, which has a multi-million Euro fund to help farmers find alternatives to neonicotinoids.
“Everything industry is doing is funded from within the industry,” he said. There's absolutely no government support specifically for looking for alternatives sugar beet, and it's a problem,” he said.
While acknowledging that ABF was a huge company, with deep pockets, which the government could be reluctant to help out, he said: “This is a crisis that's come out of the blue, and it requires more than the £2 million provided to the BBRO by the NFU and British Sugar.
"It's not that the industry doesn't fund its own research, it's just that this is an extraordinary situation, and so I think it's justified to think government might be able to do some kind of match funding.”
Stevens said that though the BBRO itself was a small team of 16, it collaborated widely with other researchers across Europe, including in the Dutch University of Wageninen, which specialises in food and the environment.
Through this collaboration, and existing funding, it had sufficient resource for a certain level of research, it could potentially accelerate priorities if more was available, he said. The hit on growers’ yields last year would hit the organisation’s future funding levels, he noted.
In an email, British Sugar said that it had a clear programme of trials and research underway through the BBRO to develop resistance to virus yellows, also that it had an “open dialogue” with government on its work to find alternatives.
A spokesperson for Defra said that it was consulting on an action plan to minimise the risks of pesticides to human and animal health and the environment, and that its national pollinator strategy set out how government, conservation groups, farmers, beekeepers and researchers could work together to improve the status of pollinating insect species in England.
Nick Mole, policy officer at Pesticide Action Network UK said he would not be surprised if British Sugar used the situation to persuade the government to use gene editing to develop varieties with greater resistance to Virus Yellows.
The government is consulting on whether to allow gene editing, which involves changing an organism’s existing DNA. The government argues that gene editing is different to genetic modification (GM), under which DNA from one species is inserted into another.
The UK was prevented from using gene editing when it was a member of the EU, since it was regulated in the same way as GM, but now it has left, the government wants to change this.
In an email, British Sugar said that gene editing could be “a versatile plant breeding method for use across many sectors”.
In sugar beet, it could help ensure that the crop is more resistant to diseases such as Virus Yellows, while reducing the use of products such as neonicotinoids, it stated.
Stevens is hopeful that a variety of sugar beet with resistance to Yellows Virus could be found through conventional breeding, given improved understanding of the genetics of sugar beet over the past ten years.
“Sugar beet is quite a laborious species to breed, so I think it’s going to take up to eight years. However, gene editing could have the potential to accelerate the development of a truly resistant sugar beet variety much faster.”
But Mole said he had “no sympathy with whatsoever” with British Sugar. “With the really huge amounts of profit it makes from sugar, and the fact that it controls all the varieties the farmers grow, they should put their profits back into the research needed.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.
Friends of the Earth has launched a petition calling on the UK Government to reduce pesticides in the wake of the decision to allow neonicotinoids for sugar beet seeding. You can sign the petition online now.