Bees and other pollinators play a key role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and are also critical to our food security. However, they are in decline in many parts of the world, hit hard by the loss of habitats and loss and widespread use of toxic pesticides.
In recent years, many of these pesticides have been banned due to pressure from researchers and environmental groups. But they can also come back.
A nasty comeback
Thiamethoxam is a type of pesticide part of the group known as neonicotinoids, widely used around the world. However, in 2018, the most toxic ones, including thiamethoxam, were banned from outdoor use in the EU and the UK amid a growing list of evidence of the harm they cause to bees and other pollinators.
When poisoned by these chemicals, bees experience paralysis of their flight muscles and a failure in the homing behavior of foragers — which means less food for the colony. A single exposure is already enough to cause significant damage and Thiamethoxam is increasingly regarded as a problematic pesticide that is best banned. Neonicotinoids in general can also cause environmental contamination, leaching into soil and water and affecting the entire ecosystem.
However, these pesticides continue to be used even in banned places as countries can grant an “emergency derogation” when there’s the danger of a virus that can’t be contained by any other “reasonable” means. The UK is the most recent example, allowing the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet against the advice of its own government experts.
It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In January 2021, the UK also planned a special derogation for the pesticide to save sugar beet plants from the beet yellow virus. However, there were lower levels of disease than expected and it was announced that the conditions for emergency use had not been met. This time, things look to be different.
Environmental and health organizations grouped under The Pesticide Collaboration have launched a legal challenge. The UK government decision, even temporary, isn’t consistent with halting wildlife decline, they argue. Farmers should be supported to reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals, finding alternative solutions, they added.
The sugar beet crisis
Over half the sugar consumed in the UK comes from sugar beet grown in England. A large amount of land is put aside every year to satisfy the country’s sugar demand, but climate change is now causing problems for the crop. This has resulted in pressure from farming lobby groups for the government to allow the use of harmful pesticides.
Unfortunately, this winter is much warmer than normal, and scientific modeling predicts a 68% level of virus incidence, which means the threshold for the use of the pesticide has been met, a government statement reads.
“The decision to approve an emergency authorization was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorizations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.
There are about 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet in the UK, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). Farmers will be banned from growing flowering plans for 32 months after the sugar beet crop to minimize the risk to bees. NFU said in a statement that growers are relieved by the decision amid severe pest pressure across the country.
Campaigners argue only 5% of the pesticide actually reaches the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil and causing a higher level of contamination than in pollen and nectar. This can then be a route of exposure for many organisms, including bee species that nest underground. It’s also absorbed by the roots of many plants visited by bees, such as wildflowers.
“Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions, not to mention directly against the recommendation of their own scientists. This decision comes just two months after the government enshrined in law a target to halt species loss by 2030,” Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said in a statement.
Situations like this are more likely to emerge as environmental regulations become tighter and climate change also puts additional pressure on agriculture. It remains to be seen what other countries will do in the UK’s position.