As you may be aware, earlier this year Environment secretary George Eustice agreed to an emergency authorisation to let a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam to treat sugar beet seed this year in an effort to protect the crop from a virus. This was a seriously controversial move since there is evidence of the clear harm that neonicotinoid pesticides cause to bees and other pollinators and their link to loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations.
As a farmers’ union representing agroecological farmers we feel it is important to make it clear that many farmers from other farming sectors are deeply concerned about the impact of neonicotinoids on biodiversity, because biodiversity, pollinators, clean water and healthy soil underpin sustainable farming and our future food supply.
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Dear George Eustice,
As agroecological farmers, we are extremely disappointed that Defra has granted an emergency derogation to the sugar beet industry for the use of thiamethoxam on seed.
Neonicotinoids, such as thiamethoxam, are fatal to bees and harm other wildlife and natural predators essential for natural pest control for crops. There are also some specific concerns about contamination of water arising when the rain washes neonicotinoids on treated seeds into surrounding water courses. These are concerns which have been around for some time, and it was on the basis of evidence of harm that the Government banned the use of the neonicotinoids. [i]
In the UK, most sugar beet has historically been grown from neonicotinoid treated seeds to prevent aphids from spreading yellow jaundice disease, that impacts yields. We are aware that a home-grown supply of some sugar is important to our food security, however the UK currently produces two-thirds more sugar than is recommended by the World Health Organisation for healthy diets for the UK population. [ii] Concerns surrounding productivity need to be balanced against harms to the natural environment. Defra must address fundamental problems with the sugar industry before agreeing to allow the use of a dangerous pesticide which harms other farming sectors.
The Government retained the right to temporarily lift the ban on the use of neonicotinoid seeds when there is a proven problem. However, yellow beet virus, cited by the sugar beet industry to lift the ban this year, is not something new. Beet yellows virus has been a persistent problem with conventional sugar beet production in the UK for many years now. We are concerned that the industry has not made significant progress in adopting alternative methods of controlling this disease. If the sugar beet industry does not change practice, they will continue to face this problem, seeking to renew the derogation for the use of thiamethoxam every year.
The sugar beet sector is highly concentrated, with British Sugar PLC buying all UK sugar. Therefore, they have considerable influence over how it is grown, and stifle, rather than foster, innovation. Growers who want to produce sugar organically find it impossible to buy a sugar processing quota. As a result, there is no organic sugar production in the UK.
By contrast, in Germany, Denmark and Austria organic production of sugar beet is expanding to meet a growing consumer demand. This is something we should be emulating in the UK, which could be supported by our industrial strategy.
Although some research is already underway to find alternative ways to protect the sugar beet crop, there needs to be more investment, by the public sector, British Sugar and private investors in a UK organic sugar industry to prevent annual authorisations for the use of seed treated with thiamethoxam. Alternative methods include the use of disease resistant varieties and integrated pest management.
Integrated Pest Management builds up natural predators to control aphids. It is a technique that many wheat farmers are already using to control aphids without neonicotinoids. To date there have been no financial incentives for sugar beet growers to grow using IPM methods. In fact, the emergency derogation requires farmers to use herbicides to control flowering plants in, and near the field. This is in order to prevent bees from coming near the deadly pesticide. [iii]
Allowing one part of the farming sector to operate to the detriment if other parts of the farming sector is a short-sighted approach to this issue. We request that DEFRA creates an action plan to prevent future exemptions to this important ban on the use of neonicotinoids. The action plan should outline concrete actions to:
I would be grateful for a reply outlining what steps Defra plans to take on this important issue.