[Valerie Vaz in the Chair] — Neonicotinoids on Crops

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:52 pm on 7th December 2015.

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Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:52 pm, 7th December 2015

Yes I was, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.

The Government still have not clarified what their current assessment of the latest evidence is and whether they consider it sufficient to support the EU ban. Since the ban, more scientific evidence has appeared emphasising the risk to bees. Examples include a link between the use of neonics and the decline of UK butterfly species, an impact on the pollination that bees provide, resulting in lower-quality apples, as others have mentioned, and emerging evidence that neonics could also affect the soil in which seeds are planted and the wild flowers that grow in it.

The more conservative analysis provided by Professor Charles Godfray and Angela McLean to the Government found a strong scientific consensus that bees exposed to these pesticides in fields suffer harm. However, it could not yet assess whether that harm ultimately leads to falls in overall bee populations. Professor Godfray’s paper highlighted one “gold standard” field study from Sweden, showing significant damage to the bumblebee populations. There was no effect on honeybees, but it is worth noting that honeybees pollinate only 5% to 15% of insect-pollinated crops. I would argue that the lack of a conclusive link with population decline should not, however, be used as a reason for ending EU restrictions. Where are the Government in their judgment of that evidence? Can the Minister give us an insight into how evidence-based policy will be applied?

Everyone here will have sympathy with farmers who are facing considerable difficulties establishing oilseed rape crops in areas under high pressure from cabbage stem flea beetle. In April, it was estimated that 5% of the winter oilseed rape crop had been lost to CSFB.

I appreciate the understandable desire to have every tool available in the toolbox to respond to CSFB, but although 70% of the oilseed rape crop was previously treated with neonics, this is the first harvest without neonics and DEFRA’s statistics for this year’s harvest have shown no change in oilseed rape yield. Waitrose has reported that, since it stopped using the pesticide on oilseed rape in 2012, it has not picked up any differences in yield, other than those attributed to seasonal, field and soil differences. Declines in yields in the eastern region, which have suffered the most from CSFB, have mirrored drops in other areas where that pest is not a problem. It would be good if the Minister said what assessment the Department had made of the effect of restrictions on yield. What amount of loss is considered an emergency warrant authorisation for the use of these pesticides?

There are concerns that farmers are having to resort to pyrethroid, an older pesticide, which is worse for pollinators and honeybees in particular. However, research seems to show that there has not been an increase in the use of that pesticide in the spring, which is the time of the highest risk to bees. The farming press have been publicising guidance from the Rothamsted institute on using sprays only when absolutely necessary, alongside other measures for avoiding flea beetle damage, including reducing cultivations and delaying drilling.

Farmers Weekly has even advised farmers that spraying pyrethroid for flea beetles is a “waste of time” and could kill beneficial insects that prey on the pests, as well as fuelling insecticide resistance.

It seems that the farming community has responded to those calls. A Newcastle University study found that 19% of farmers had changed their practices to take account of the non-availability of neonics. New technologies and redesigning crop rotations have been shown to reduce reliance on pesticides by 50%. There has also been valuable work in promoting beneficial insects, some of which are predators for the pests. I hope the Minister will outline what assessment his Department has made of the impact of using alternatives to neonics, which is one of its reasons for opposing the EU ban. What work is the Minister doing with the farming industry to ensure that independent advice is provided to farmers on sustainable pest management approaches?

Although today’s debate has focused on neonics, there are, of course, many reasons for the decline of pollinators, including habitat loss, climate change and pests and diseases. There are many positives about the national pollinator strategy in addressing those causes, most critically the way in which it provides a call to action for many amazing local projects across the country to increase food, shelter and nesting sites. This has rightly tapped into what the Environmental Audit Committee describes as

“an invaluable and committed resource”,

but is this enough? I agree with the Buglife assessment that the national pollinator strategy is more of a framework than a programme. I would like to see more effort from the Government in creating better farm habitats. With three quarters of our land used for agriculture, our agri-environment policy is the best tool we have for effecting large-scale change.

There are concerns about the way in which the new greening requirements of the basic payment scheme are being implemented and there is no guarantee that it will deliver improvements for pollinators and other wildlife in the farmed landscape. What assessment has the Department made of implementation of the greening requirements of the basic payment scheme, particularly its effectiveness in delivering improvements for pollinators in the farmed landscape?

The new countryside stewardship scheme has targeted support for pollinators, but it has been a real worry that while 11,000 farmers have come out of entry-level stewardship agreements, only just over 2,300 applications were made by the deadline for the mid-tier stewardship scheme that replaced it. Will the Government agree to the NFU’s request for an urgent review of the Government’s implementation of the countryside stewardship scheme?