In January, Britain made the damning decision to approve ‘emergency use’ of the banned neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam (TMX), on the 2021 beet harvest. This signals a complete disregard for the devastating environmental impact the pesticide causes; killing vast numbers of insect pollinators and ultimately pushing the food chain, which supports human food production, out of kilter. The approval follows lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union to protect the sugar beet harvest which is currently being ravaged by yellow virus, with some producers estimating a 80% loss in crop output due to the disease.
TMX is a pesticide which was banned by the EU in April 2018 due to its devastating effects on insect populations and specifically, bees. For many years, scientists have linked plummeting bee populations to the widespread use of such pesticides. Alarmingly, exposure to TMX weakens the immune systems of bees, leaving them unable to fly and may even harm the developing brains of baby bees. Maintaining a healthy, thriving bee population is key to ensuring crops are fertilised and able to produce fruiting bodies i.e. fruit, vegetables and grains, for us to eat.
This recent approval for use of TMX directly contradicts a similar application back in 2018 which was rejected by the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides because of the unacceptable environmental risks posed by the pesticide. The risks to insect populations and habitats have not changed and yet this time, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, saw fit to approve the application.
This ‘emergency’ revoking of the ban is concerning and may herald a slippery slope into routine use of this chemical again. Now, just to be clear, in the 2 years initially following it’s ban, TMX has been approved for ‘emergency authorisation’ on 67 separate occasions across Europe. This included an authorisation for use of the deadly chemical on golf courses in Denmark to kill populations of chafer beetles which were eating the grass on the courses. Their justification for ‘emergency’ use? Damaged golf courses could cause ‘high economic consequences’. Such laughable cases of ‘emergency’ approval just go to highlight this regressive loophole, which companies will continue to exploit at the expense of the environment as long as there is a financial gain to tempt them.
Critics argue that there are currently no alternatives in such instances where plants are threatened by viruses or infestations. However this expectation of leeway when using harmful substances hardly provides an incentive to drive the development of new, sustainable techniques and technologies.
The academic, Professor Dave Goulson estimates that 1 teaspoon of TMX would be enough to kill 1.25 billion honey bees. These terrifying numbers would cause catastrophic implications for our pollinator populations and in turn, our farming and food production sectors.
Already we see instances across the world where bee populations have taken such a nose-dive due to heavy pesticide use, that it impacts human food production. In rural China, Hanyuan county, Sichuan Province, which is considered the ‘pear capital of the world’, farms are now relying on people to pollinate the pear blossoms by hand, using feather brushes to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. All because they have seen their natural bee populations plummet dramatically due to heavy pesticide use in years gone by.
When the ban came into force on the outdoor use of TMX in 2018, Michael Gove, then the Environment Secretary said, “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry, is greater than previously understood … We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.” He also wrote in the Guardian, “Unless the evidence base changes again, the government will keep these restrictions in place after we have left the EU.”
It is a betrayal of our ecosystems and food systems that these promises are being so brazenly ignored, along with the scientific evidence which details the horrendous effect these chemicals are having on the environment.
Words by Rose Kendall