Bees are good. We all know that, don’t we. Bees are good. Pests are bad. Farmers need to kill pests so they can grow our food and they use pesticides to do that.
So why would they want to use pesticides which kill bees? Many chemicals which kill pests also kill bees and other insects which are termed ‘beneficial’, such as ladybirds, butterflies and lacewings. However, the optics of that don’t look good, so such chemicals are often referred to as ‘pesticides’ rather than ‘insecticides’; that sounds (and is) much more wide-ranging, but they are often exactly the same thing.
Farmers and growers (and some gardeners) routinely use pesticides to protect food crops and other plants from insect damage. In past years, ‘contact’ insecticides like DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) were used, which relied on actually spraying the pests when they were on the plants. DDT was eventually banned in the UK in 1986 after it became clear how much environmental damage it was causing.
Since then, systemic insecticides have been developed which work by being absorbed into the plants, and hence also by anything – aphids, caterpillars, bees – which feeds on them. In recent years controversy has arisen over neonicotinoids – ‘neonics’ – based on nicotine-like chemicals (nicotine has been known for decades to kill insects of all kinds). It is the indiscriminate effect of some systemic insecticides which cause concern, and neonics in particular have been found to be a factor in the decline of bee colonies (A neonicotinoid pesticide impairs foraging…in free-flying bumblebees | Scientific Reports (nature.com), of insects and terrestrial invertebrates Worldwide Integrated Assessment – The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides (tfsp.info), and in the contamination of water courses and lakes How the world’s most widely used insecticide led to a fishery collapse (ampproject.org)
Companies like Bayer have invested huge sums into research to prove that the neonicotinoid insecticides they produce would not, if properly used, cause damage to ‘beneficial’ insects. Laboratory experiments were one thing, but the results of field trials have not always been considered entirely reliable. For example, it was proved that bees, once they have found a good source of forage, will ‘work’ that source repeatedly, meaning they will inevitably take in more of any chemical used on that forage than they probably would in lab tests.
The EU, stating that “Neonics affect the central nervous system of insects, leading to eventual paralysis and death” (Neonicotinoids | Food Safety (europa.eu), was sufficiently concerned about damage to bees and other beneficial insects from systemic insecticides that in 2018 the outdoor use of three of the five most widely-used neonicotinoids was banned. A fourth was banned in February 2020. Some farmers – in the UK and the EU – complained bitterly that the ban would make it more difficult for them to produce viable crops.
One of the UK-grown crops which is prone to damage by aphids is sugar beet. The damage is not caused by aphids eating the plants but by viruses they effectively ‘inject’ into the plants when they suck the sap. It is claimed that sugar beet ‘virus yellows’ disease can result in a loss of up to 80 per cent of the crop, and sugar beet farmers were amongst the most vocal opponents of the ban.
The beet farmers also discovered recently that they would face increased competition because, as reported in The Independent and elsewhere in August 2020, the government decided to allow tariff-free imports of raw cane sugar from outside the EU after the end of the Brexit transition period. Tate & Lyle, the only importer of cane sugar to the UK, had lobbied hard to import sugar cane from countries like Brazil and Australia, where – as Greenpeace reported last year in Brexit-backing sugar refiner gets ‘sweetheart deal’ on cane imports – cane sugar is often produced to lower labour and environmental standards (including the use of neonics) than in the UK. Greenpeace estimates that Tate & Lyle is now set to save £73m.
Is it a coincidence that Tate & Lyle have links to the government? David Davis, MP, former Brexit Secretary, worked for the firm for 17 years, eventually becoming a senior executive and Board member, according to the Morning Star, which also claims the firm was a regular big donor to the Conservative party. The firm is said to have donated regularly to the party’s funds: it certainly sponsored the party conference in 2017, leading to the ironic appearance, as reported even in the usually-supportive Sun (Anger after Tory conference is sponsored by Tate & Lyle – despite sugar tax to crackdown on UK obesity ) of then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt making a speech about the need to address child obesity whilst wearing a lanyard bearing the Tate & Lyle logo.
Tate & Lyle (no longer a British firm, but owned since 2010 by American Sugar Refining Group) was keen on Brexit: its senior vice-president Gerald Mason was quoted by Reuters in 2016 as saying “Leaving the EU is the biggest opportunity of our lifetime” (Britain’s cane sugar refiner sees only upside to hard Brexit) and the firm’s website bore a banner reading “Brexit is a golden opportunity for businesses like Tate & Lyle Sugars… The EU imposes prohibitively high import tariffs and protectionist sugar and trade policies”. The firm must have wanted, then, to “get Brexit done”. Greenpeace alleges “years of aggressive campaigning by T&L for a Brexit that removes import tariffs on sugarcane”.
Although Mason insists that the company itself has been “quite transparent” about its issues with the EU, Greenpeace’s 2019 report quotes Devon MP and shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard as saying that the government had “serious questions to answer” about the zero-tariff quota on sugar cane imports. “Not only is the government refusing to protect British farmers from being undercut by cheap imports, it is now striking sweetheart deals with Tory donors in big business…. Tate & Lyle’s connections into the Conservative Party run deep. Ministers need to come clean on what lobbying took place prior to this decision,” he said.
Transparency might also have been desirable in a different thread of the British sugar story. Shortly after the UK’s departure from the EU, against a background of other administrations temporarily lifting the neonics ban (the French government formally decided in August 2020 to do so), British sugar beet farmers complained bitterly of being at a disadvantage. An application was submitted by farmers to be allowed to use neonics treatment on sugar beet seed, to protect against the ‘virus yellows’. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) was of course involved, encouraging members to support the application and to ask other farmers to do so.
The NFU added a request: “We’d ask that you refrain from making this letter public – we believe it will have a stronger impact on the secretary of state if kept out of the public domain.” Sugar growers reject ‘secret’ lobbying jibe – Farmers Weekly
Presumably this request was made because the NFU believe the general public cannot be trusted to inform themselves properly and to consider the matter objectively?
Whatever the influence of the lobbying, “secret” or otherwise, the environment, food and farming secretary George Eustice indicated that he was minded to view the application favourably, and the ban on the use of neonics for seed treatment was subsequently lifted on 08 January.
In an ironic twist of the kind familiar to opponents of Brexit, one farmer is quoted as saying “it’s impossible to compete internationally when you don’t have the same regulatory environment” (UK government approves the use for neonicotinoids for sugar beets).
Environmentalists are appalled. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world (The realities of UK nature – in pictures | WWF) and it is widely known that insects of all kinds are in particular trouble. Any insects feeding on plants treated with neonics will inevitably ingest some of the chemical; this could include aphids and caterpillars, and the effect of the neonicotinoids could work their way up the food chain. If this permission is the thin end of the wedge, and the government proceeds to give further permissions for the use of neonics under “special conditions”, our natural world will be further depleted. Bees – of which there are over 250 indigenous species in the UK – are disappearing, through disease, colony decline (where the numbers in a hive drop dramatically and the hive cannot sustain itself), and loss of safe and suitable foraging opportunities. Insects are vital to our own ultimate survival as a species, through pollination of many of our food plants: fruit, vegetables and seed plants like those which produce sunflower oil all have to be pollinated. Whilst some still claim that evidence of the adverse effects of neonics is not reliable, others would argue that the ‘precautionary principle’ should operate, and neonics should not be used at all.
Sugar-beet farmers of course have welcomed the lifting of the ban. It has yet to be seen whether this relaxation in standards is the first of many more to come and if government adheres to the one season/one crop permission; the government argues that British farmers must not be hindered from producing “good British food” (whilst simultaneously indulging the wishes of US-owned competitors and donors like Tate & Lyle). Whether we shall see a continuing and even more catastrophic decline in the numbers of beneficial insects also remains to be seen. There appears to be no level playing field for the bees, that’s for sure.