Credit: GG Photographer Jenny Dimitrialdi

Beeting the bees

By Claire Thomson

A pesticide to help sugar beet grow has been approved, but it may harm the bee population.

The green light has been given by the UK government for the emergency use of pesticides, which are known for being poisonous and harmful to bees, to help grow sugar beet in the upcoming spring months.

In 2018, a ban on these highly-poisonous pesticides was introduced under EU and UK regulations, with Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary at the time, expressing the fact that the country “cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.” However, following a significant reduction in sugar beet yields last year due to a virus, and similar conditions and threats predicted for this upcoming year, the British Sugar and the National Farmers Union had applied to the government for permission to use these pesticides. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claim that the use of the pesticide will be tightly restricted to this year only, and the current environment secretary, George Eustice, has laid out conditions of use, which are described as “limited and controlled” following his agreement on an emergency authorisation of the chemicals for up to 120 days.

Whilst sugar beet is important for the production of sugar, there is serious concern surrounding the impact of the pesticide on the primary pollinator. In the words of Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” In a nutshell, bees are essential for the pollination of plants, pollinating a third of the food that is consumed, with many fruits, vegetables, and crops, which also feed livestock depending on bees alongside around 80% of flowering plants. Without populations of wild bees, it has been estimated that it would cost UK farmers £1.8bn per annum to adopt the role of a bee by manually pollinating crops.

In the last decade, the UK has thought to have a third of its bee population, making the preservation of these species becoming more and more vital. The pesticides containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam is designed to protect sugar beet from insects in its early stages of growth, but the warning remains potent as it will not only kill bees but also harm creatures in the soil as it washed off the crop. Studies have shown that these pesticides affect the navigational abilities, due to harming bee brain development potentially leaving them unable to fly, weakens immune systems and can reduce breeding success.

Despite the uproar, the introduction of these pesticides has caused amongst environmental protection groups and nature lovers in general, and rightly so, the UK is not the only country in the EU that has called for the emergency use of bee-killing pesticides. An investigation by Unearthed has discovered that since their ban in 2018, EU countries have issued 67 “emergency” authorisations for outdoor use of these chemicals. The investigation reported that these uses are often unjustified and endangering the well-being of people, the environment and of course, pollinators.

Brexit has led to some large changes being implemented surrounding the UK’s foreign trade agreements. Trade deals are currently under negotiation with the USA, and planned for Australia and India, with the worry that these will diminish UK pesticide standards and regulations. This will not only risk damaging public health but also the environment as trade negotiators are strongly urging the UK government to allow hazardous pesticides, that are currently banned, to be used in UK farms and gardens. The bee-killing pesticides, banned in the UK, are all permitted for use in the USA, Australia and India, alongside pesticides that are notorious for contaminating groundwater and harming aquatic ecosystems. To put the use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers into context, in comparison to grapes grown in the UK, American grapes are legally allowed to contain 1,000 times the amount of the insecticide that can affect fertility and has been linked to an increase in cancer and miscarriages.


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