Bees are in decline worldwide, and neonicotinoid pesticides are heavily implicated. Restricted by the EU, following the precautionary principle, they have been subject to a lawsuit by Bayer. Last week, the British government agreed – against expert advice – to allow emergency use of thiamethoxam, a banned bee-toxic pesticide, for the 2022 sugar beet growing season, threatening bee and pollinator populations again.
At the intersection of food, farming, human health, biodiversity loss, the climate crisis, and corporate power, you will find pesticides.
Pesticides are a keystone issue, emblematic of our dysfunctional relationship with nature and with each other, where the belief you can wield over-sized power and control without negative consequence still holds.
Sugar beet farming and pesticides
Each year, the UK uses 100,000 hectares of land to grow sugar beet, (almost the same land area devoted to all UK vegetable crops combined). The only company that purchases and refines UK-grown beets is British Sugar. British Sugar negotiates a fixed yearly price for the crop. If you’re one of the 3,500 farmers growing sugar beet commercially that’s the price, and you’ve got to make it work.
Over the years, sugar beet farming has become increasingly reliant on pesticides. When growing food, varieties are often chosen to produce the highest yield possible, which can make them more vulnerable to pests and disease. Because sugar beet plants are harvested in wetter months, they also pick up and displace large amounts of topsoil, damaging another crucial line of defence against pests.
The pressure to produce the highest yield possible degrades soils and creates the perfect condition for pests and diseases to run through a whole field. In previous years, this was no bother. Pesticides could protect the whole crop.
However in 2018 thiamethoxam (along with all neonicotinoid pesticides) was banned for agricultural use in the UK and the EU due to its devastating impact on bees. A single teaspoon of thiamethoxam can kill 1.25 billion bees, equivalent to four lorryloads.
Which brings us to last week’s government decision.
For the second year running, British Sugar and the National Farmers Union have applied to the government for emergency use of thiamethoxam on sugar beet crops. Sugar beet is grown in an unsustainable way: as a monoculture, degrading topsoil, with a yield-as-king approach – for only one buyer. It is overly-reliant on pesticides to be farmed successfully and profitably. When a predictable threat to the vulnerable crop is forecast – in this case virus yellows spread by aphids – it’s easier to fall back on the known control: pesticides.
Thiamethoxam is banned for good reason. But a corporation as large and powerful as British Sugar can put in the time and resources to lobby the government for its emergency use across all sugar beet farming. Remember that UK-grown sugar beet is highly influenced by one company. It can be argued that not using thiamethoxam would put the whole of the sugar beet crop at risk. Thus, it becomes much harder to deny the application.
Against expert advice
Last week, the government granted emergency use of thiamethoxam, against expert advice. Both the Health and Safety Executive and the Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) judged that ‘the requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met’. They stated that ‘on the basis of the evidence presented to ECP, the Committee agreed that it is unable to support an emergency authorisation’.
The requirements for emergency use are high and hard to meet for very good reason. Not only are neonicotinoids highly toxic to bees and other insects, but they can persist in the soil for a long time, pollute rivers, and harm aquatic life. A recent study showed that even one exposure of a neonicotinoid insecticide had the ability to significantly impact bees’ ability to produce offspring for generations.
To offset this risk, the government has decreed that any field which has been exposed to a neonicotinoid must not be planted with flowering crops for at least 32 months. Arguably, this measure only perpetuates the conditions that will deter natural pest predators, and necessitate the use of more pesticides in the future.
More from Central Bylines
There’s a growing movement in UK agriculture to farm more in harmony and partnership with nature. The Nature Friendly Farming Network has exposed the fallacy that higher use of pesticides and fertilisers equals higher profits for the farmer. Instead, for nature-friendly farmers, the emphasis is to work with what nature provides for free – planting wildflower strips to encourage natural pest predators, diversifying crops, and building soil health.
That growing ambition amongst farmers is matched by consumer concerns. Eight in ten people want to buy food that protects and restores nature and does not damage the environment. Eighty percent of people also want farming in harmony with nature to be the norm in the UK.
Farmers stuck in a bad system
But sugar beet farmers are stuck. With one buyer and a system that almost demands they rely on pesticides to turn a profit, even the best-intentioned farmers lack the support and systems necessary to reimagine what nature-friendly UK sugar production could look like.
For the consumer, what does the alternative to UK sugar production look like? Far flung imports, often grown with hazardous pesticides. That damage might not be in our backyard, but it still exists somewhere else.
The bottom line
Pesticides might provide a temporary fix for British Sugar this year, but they will remain a sticky issue. Many, including the experts, judge that the cost to nature is too high. The growing swell of farmers wanting alternatives, consumer concern and public appreciation for nature all demand that another way be found.
British Sugar has a responsibility to balance what the planet needs against the profit sheet.
Sarah Haynes, the Pesticide Collaboration & PAN UK