Europe throws a lifeline to our bees

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Europe throws a lifeline to our bees

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In the end, the European Commission won the day and new restrictions will soon be placed on the use of the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.   

Much of the comment in our press has focused on the fact that the UK, with seven other Member States, voted against a ban.  In fact, despite the recent campaigning effort from a number of NGOs, the UK hardened its position as in March they had abstained. 

Here are the details of yesterday's agreement:

  • Three chemicals (clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid) will now be banned on all crops attractive to pollinators, including both seed treatment and foliar sprays.
  • Treated seeds cannot be used or put on the market from 1 December.   Member States must amend or withdraw existing product authorisations by September 30th.  Any period of grace granted by Member States must end by 30 November.
  • The ban will lasts for two years then the European Commission will review the situation.
  • Member State governments are still free to impose additional/more rigorous restrictions than these in their own countries. 

Behind the headlines, two interesting debates that have at times been colliding.  One has been on the strength of the evidential link between neonics and bee declines.  Avid followers of this blog will note that we took our time to support calls for a ban on flowering crops - we had been worried about the environmental consequences of farmers switching to more harmful chemicals.  In the end though, the conclusion we reached, having weighed up all the evidence available to us, was that the risk from neonics to pollinators probably outweighs the risks from the alternatives. 

The second debate focused on how much environmental harm we are prepared to inflict if we are to grow enough food to feed the world.  Some highlighted the potential loss in yield if neonic use was banned.  Putting aside the spurious debates about the the UK's capability to feed the world (for a reminder of our views on the subject see here), I think that concern has been growing amongst the farming community that neonicotinoids were really bad news.  The last thing that farmers want is for their own pesticide regime to lead to a loss of pollinators.  The value of bees to the economy is estimated at about £500m yet replacing those free services would cost nearly four times that amount - £1.8bn - but that assumes that this level of pollination by hand is feasible.  To be honest, like many debates about the utilitarian value of wildlife, priceless might be a better description (as captured by the banner at last Friday's march of the beekeepers).  

So what should happen next?

First, we need the ban to be in place as quickly as possible.

Second, we should use the two year period to improve our understanding of neonicotinoid use so that the 2015 review is informed by the best science.  Equally, we also need to monitor the impacts of the ban - including the use of alternative pesticides - on populations of pollinating insects. 

Third, we need to use this opportunity to develop and promote safer alternatives to neonicotinoids – including non-chemical techniques.  We've long argued that pest control in the EU should follow the principles of integrated pest management.

Finally, we hope that our government will now strive to get the best result for UK farmers: helping them manage pests successfully and safely as part of wildlife-friendly systems of farming, without the need for neonics.

So a good day for wildlife and a good day for anyone who wants the value of nature to be recognised in decision-making.

Comments
  • Thanks Sooty - no one peddling an unpalatable middle way message wins any plaudits these days!

  • Rob,just about the best comment ever on here.

    Everyone seems to have a need for the latest mobile phone that will do anything except grow food,why they need the  b***dy things is a mystery because 99% of them are switched off so they can regulate who can contact them,ban them all.

  • Martin

    Further to my letter, amongst others, in The Times today re this matter (free to view);

    www.scribd.com/.../Letters-in-The-Times-re-bees-neonicotinoids-May-2103

    herewith an extract of an exchange from me with a conservation NGO

    "I’ve no beef with the science you mention but cannot believe that the govt ignores it purely due to agrochemical lobbying. Naïve I may be but even Sir John Lawton recognises the 'needs & tensions' when lining up science data for biodiversity'  I assume some of those needs are our insatiable demands for ‘affordable’ food?

    I’ve also no doubt that financially cheap insecticides have environmentally expensive effects on insects outside their target range. I myself wouldn’t wish to be an arable farmer today in a white chem suit but am aware that we, the consumer, fails to connect our the effects of our consumption on the environment. If we did, organic would be soaring & smartphones sales declining as we discovered our priority on household expenditure.  

    We’ve discussed vested interests before – those that have a financial interest - but it’s increasingly obvious that no one really wants us to connect to our food. Conservation NGOs because its too a direct & unpalatable for members and farmers/agrochemicals because they want us just to keep eating their produce.

    That’s my beef. Where are the independent, non partisan voices pushing an informed debate/analysis to connect us to our food? It’s only then, having changed our consumption & waste, will we connect to nature before it’s too late.                    Bloody hard, I know!"

    yours aye twitter.com/blackgull

  • Hope you managed to get a good list, Redkite...

  • An excellent, very welcome and sensible decision from Europe. It is also right to review the results of the ban in two years time, just in case there is some other factor causing bee decline, as well or instead. When those who did not support the ban argue about the loss in agricultural production let them also consider the increase in productivity elsewhere in the natural world because of the return of bee numbers. It is also one less distortion of nature.

    As you sat Martin a good day all round but it is a pity our Government has yet again had to be "dragged screaming and shouting" into adopting this decision. No doubt there will be further calls in some quaters for Britain to leave the EU. However having just returned from a brief bird watching trip to Cyprus, where by chance I met and chatted with several other bird watchers from France and Germany, it just convinces me even more, that the way to right the many man made wrongs that afflict our wildlife and the environment generally, including the wrongs imposed by some aspects of EU policy, is to work even more vigorously with our EU partners and certainely not to withdraw into a policy if "little islanders".

  • I think that this is a good blog; I would share on FB if I had that facility available. This initiative needs to be well monitored and I repeat my suggestion that what we need is wider field margins; (not the only one to be saying this of course) and really shows the value of the EU which has pioneered so much environmental law.