Brexit, our Agriculture and Biodiversity: The First Shoots of Havoc Appear

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Special Report by Colleen McDuling – Science Correspondent

January 28, 2021

Bee on Cow Parsely. Copyright © Colleen McDuling, 2014

A group of agrochemicals called the neonicotinoids are so toxic that the European Union banned the outdoor use of three of them (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in 2018.[1] France went a step further and banned all five neonicotinoids for outdoor and indoor use. However, a loophole existed to allow the use of these neonicotinoids in emergency situations and since 2018, EU countries have issued at least 67 “emergency authorizations” for outdoor use.[2] In particular these agrochemicals have been used on sugar beet.

Now, it seems that since the UK has exited the EU, that same loophole will be applied here. It has come to light that in 2020, Bayer, together with the National Farmers Union (NFU) secretly campaigned to allow the use of neonicotinoids on crops in the UK.[3] Over 1,200 farmers signed a petition to George Eustice asking him to bring back these toxic chemicals. The Farmers Weekly further reports that the case was fought out at the European Court of Justice last June.[4]

The mainstream media now report that the UK government has given farmers the go-ahead to use one of the neonicotinoids called thiamethoxam on British sugar beet crops. These crops are susceptible to the Virus Yellows Disease, a plant disease which is transmitted by aphids. The Guardian reports that the government broke its promise despite “an explicit government pledge to keep the restrictions”.[5] In all of The Guardian, The Independent and Ecowatch it was revealed that the NFU and British Sugar had made requests to give sugar beets extra protection.[6] The comprehensive report from The Independent includes quotes from the Wildlife Trusts, one of which clearly outlines the betrayal felt by conservationists; “…The government know the clear harm that neonicotinoid pesticides cause to bees and other pollinators and just three years ago supported restrictions on them across the European Union…”[7]

The neonicotinoids are notoriously noxious chemicals which have led to the decimation of bee populations in recent times. Thiamethoxam weakens the immune systems of bees, it impairs the development of baby bees’ brains and they become unable to fly. Other studies have revealed that the reproduction of bees is greatly reduced. Neonicotinoids have even been found in honey. It appears that bees can become addicted to the nicotine in neonicotinoids and this will lead to the other consequences outlined above.[8]   

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist has condemned the turnabout by the UK government saying on Twitter that “the UK’s so called ‘green industrial revolution’ is off to a great start. Very credible indeed.”[9] And Greenpeace has been vociferous in their stance on the situation and has launched a petition here.

Sugar beet crops are non flowering crops unless left in the ground for a second year, when they will bolt and form flowers. At the usual time of harvesting, sugar beet would not have flowered. Using thiamethoxam on these crops ought not to have any consequences for bees or other winged pollinators; there are no flowers for them to visit. Nonetheless, it poisons the crop and can poison and even kill small invertebrates and other small animals who opportunize the sugar beet for food or shelter. Whole ecosystems are disrupted. And if bees alight on the leaves, they will invariably take some of the poison into their bodies.

Furthermore, it precipitates into the soil and poisons it. The entire microbiome of the soil is greatly disturbed and soil health is severely compromised. A vicious cycle emerges and plant diseases are encouraged. Bad soil health leads to “sick” crops. Iain Tolhurst (Tolly) of Tolhurst Organics in Oxfordshire, maintains that to prevent Virus Yellows Disease in the first place, the health of the soil is of paramount importance. Most commercial growers do not use stockfree, organic or even veganic principles. Tolly recommended that growers adopt an entirely new systems approach and convert to an entirely veganic or organic system with adequate rotations. However, this is a lengthy process and can take years.    

In the UK, sugar beet crops are used as fodder crops as well as for sugar production. It goes without saying that if the crop is contaminated with thiamethoxam, human and animal health will be affected. In humans these effects are mainly neurological, renal, hepatic and developmental.[10]

The Vegan Organic Network is clear on its position apropos the use of agrochemicals on crops; they are to be rejected. Agrochemicals disrupt the health of the soil, destroy biodiversity and are harmful to human health.  

[1] Current Status of Neonicotinoids in the EU;

[2] Unearthed;

[3] Bee-killing pesticide row as farmer’s union accused of secretly campaigning to bring them back after Brexit;

[4] Bayer and NFU battling to overturn neonicotinoids ban;

[5] Government breaks promise to maintain ban on bee-harming pesticide;

[6] UK Allows Emergency Use of Bee-Killing Pesticide;

[7] Government to let farmers use bee-killing pesticide banned by EU;

[8] ‘Like nicotine’: Bees develop preference for pesticides, study shows;

[9] Greta Thunberg criticises government over decision to green-light bee-killing pesticide banned by EU;

[10] NTP Research Report on The Scoping Review of  Potential Human Health Effects Associated With Exposure To Neonicotinoid Pesticides; September 2020;