Ministers have given the go-ahead for farmers to use a banned bee-harming pesticide in England for the second year running.
The government went against the advice of its own scientific advisers, who said they did not see the justification for applying the neonicotinoid to sugar beet this year.
A single teaspoon of thiamethoxam is toxic enough to kill 1.25 billion bees, according to biology professor and insect expert Dave Goulson, and wildlife chiefs warned the decision could devastate already-struggling bee populations.
Environment officials announced they would permit the use of the pesticide to try to combat a virus transmitted by aphids.
They say the UK’s sugar harvest could otherwise be at risk this year and that “its exceptional temporary use will be tightly controlled and only permitted in very specific circumstances when strict requirements are met”.
Neonicotinoids are considered so harmful that they were banned by the UK and the EU in 2018, but since then 12 countries, including France, Denmark and Spain, have also granted emergency permits for neonicotinoid treatments to go ahead.
This time last year there was an outcry when ministers first gave beet farmers the green light to apply the pesticide, although eventually it was not used because a cold winter killed off the aphids.
Wildlife experts warned the decision “sounds a death knell for millions of bees and other insects” and flies in the face of government pledges to halt biodiversity loss.
The Pesticide Collaboration, which encompasses environmental organisations the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts, said the would harm of wildlife and that the government should increase protection for bees and other wildlife from the harm caused by pesticides.
Minutes from a meeting of the Expert Committee on Pesticides say members agreed that the requirements for emergency authorisation had not been met and that pesticide water pollution caused by the decision would harm river life.
Even minute traces of neonicotinoid chemicals in crop pollen or wild flowers “play havoc with bees’ ability to forage and navigate, with catastrophic consequences for the survival of their colony”, according to the RSPB.
A recent study showed that even one instance of exposure of a “neonic” insecticide significantly harmed bees’ ability to produce offspring.
Thiamethoxam is a seed treatment, taken up by the whole plant, including the flower, pollen and juices from the plant insects forage on, wildlife experts say.
Sandra Bell, of Friends of the Earth, said: “Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions.”
Joan Edwards, of The Wildlife Trusts, said the decision was “a clear betrayal of promises made to protect the natural world and comes at a time when nature declines are worse than ever”, adding: “Less than two months ago the government adopted a legally binding commitment to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030 within its flagship Environment Act – the authorisation of this neonicotinoid flies in the face of this commitment and sounds a death knell for millions of bees and other insects.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “This decision has not been taken lightly and is based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorisations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met.
“Strict criteria remain in place meaning this authorisation will only be used if necessary.”
The government also says work on gene editing will help develop crops that are more resistant to aphids.
British Sugar, which made the emergency application, said the seed treatment would be used only if a predetermined, independent threshold level was triggered in March. Peter Watson, agriculture drector, said: “The emergency authorisation also contains controls to protect wildlife, including a reduced application rate of the treatment and restrictions on flowering crops which can be planted in the same field following sugar beet grown from treated seeds.”
The industry planned to tackle viruses without the need for neonicotinoids in future, such as through grower practices and seed breeding programmes, he said.
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