[Valerie Vaz in the Chair] — Neonicotinoids on Crops

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:01 pm on 7th December 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:01 pm, 7th December 2015

Thank you for calling me, Mr Wilson—and also for your stealth entrance, which went unnoticed by some Members in the Chamber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ben Howlett on leading this debate. The scale of the petition on this issue shows just how much people care about it. Many hon. Members have received many emails about it. When I was about to make the decision early in the summer, I received some 50,000 emails and regret that it was impossible to reply to all of them. However, I understand that there is a lot of public concern about the matter.

I commend my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way to so many hon. Members who wanted to speak. I did not anticipate the luxury of having time at the end of this debate, given the numbers present at the beginning; nevertheless, those numbers show just how important this issue is. I have been passionate about it throughout my time as an MP. I worked in the farming industry—we were fruit farmers and we had beehives on the farm—and three years ago I attended an event at which Friends of the Earth launched its “Bees Needs” campaign. It was a great campaign aimed at encouraging schools and people in towns and across the country to invest and help habitats for bees. I may have differences with Friends for the Earth about elements of the neonicotinoid debate, not least the emergency authorisations that I approved earlier this year—I will return to that—but I commend its work to raise awareness of the plight of our bees.

A number of hon. Members have talked about the reasons for the decline. Daniel Zeichner suggested that the evidence was absolutely clear that the decline in the bee population could be linked directly to neonicotinoids, and neonicotinoids alone. That is an over-simplification. The reality is that we have seen declining bee populations since the mid-1950s. The reasons for the decline in our bee populations are many, varied and complex. We believe that a large element is loss of habitat, particularly the loss of wild, traditional flowering meadows. We have lost hedgerows, which are an important habitat for bees, particularly bumblebees.

We have also seen problems with disease, and sometimes stress makes bees more susceptible to disease. We have had varroa and hive mites, and a linked problem is that many of our honeybees are imported from countries such as Italy. Those bees are not genetically disposed to survive winters here in the UK so we often have winter losses. Indeed, in Cornwall—my hon. Friend Sarah Newton is nodding—there is a project to reintroduce the native black bee. It is more resilient and produces less sugar, but keeps more of it for itself during the winter months so that it can survive.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively recent group of chemicals so we cannot directly attribute the decline in the bee population just to them. If hon. Members are serious about wanting to help bees, as I am, we must look at the wider picture, which is exactly what we have sought to do with our pollinator strategy. Just a few weeks ago, I launched the implementation plan to start moving that strategy forward. It includes a range of issues, such as commissioning new evidence so that we can better understand the pressures on our bees, and looking at integrated pest management.

Some hon. Members have suggested a different approach that does not rely on pesticides. I absolutely agree. In the decades ahead we are likely to see reduced reliance on chemical pesticides, probably the use of genetic technologies so that we can breed disease resistance directly into crops, and an alternative approach to husbandry, sometimes going back to the skills of rotation, which to some extent have been lost in modern farming, to reduce the build-up of pests, disease and weeds in the first place. We call that integrated pest management, and DEFRA hosts the voluntary initiative organisation, whose primary focus is encouraging the development of integrated management so that over time we will be able to reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides.

On neonicotinoids and authorisation of pesticides more generally, it is important to recognise that pesticides are tightly regulated. Active substances are approved at EU level only if they meet safety requirements. The UK is responsible for authorising products containing approved active substances and we carry out thorough assessment of the scientific evidence, drawing on advice from the UK’s independent expert scientists on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which I will return to later. The risks to species such as bees form a key part of the assessment before products are authorised, and the regulatory regime also provides for regular reviews to take account of the latest information and scientific knowledge.

On the specifics of neonicotinoids, the EU introduced restrictions from late 2013 on the use of three neonicotinoids —clothianidin, imidaclopridand thiamethoxam. This debate is nothing if not challenging on diction. The restrictions apply to a wide range of crops that are attractive to bees and cover amateur use—for example, in gardens. Other uses, such as seed treatment for autumn-sown cereals and sugar beet, remain approved. The restrictions are not time limited and remain in place unless the European Commission decides to change them. The Government have implemented the restrictions in full. When imposing them, the Commission acknowledged that the evidence is incomplete and promised to review the science relating to neonicotinoids and bees. That review is now under way and provides an important opportunity to produce an up-to-date assessment of all the scientific evidence. The European Food Safety Authority is carrying out the review and we anticipate that it will conclude its work next summer. The UK will contribute fully to the review as it progresses. We have said throughout that we want it to be firmly grounded on a strengthened scientific evidence base.

The shadow Minister mentioned the very good paper by Professor Charles Godfray and others, which was published in September and was a restatement of all the recent evidence on neonicotinoid insecticides and their effect on pollinators. I commend that report to any hon. Member interested in this issue. It is a very thorough examination of all the research that has been done—laboratory research that looks at the impact on bees of acute poisoning through very high levels of neonicotinoids, but also the beginnings of some of the field trials that have been taking place. There was an interesting field trial in Sweden, for instance. The people involved believed that there could be an impact on bumblebee populations, but not necessarily on honeybee populations.

The paper concludes that this is a very complex issue. Some of the work in Canada, for instance, concludes that there is no big impact on bee populations. However, the big conclusion from the paper is that we need more field-scale trials. That is why the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is at the moment in the UK doing a very large, comprehensive trial, the results of which we should have next spring, and those results will feed into the review currently being carried out by EFSA. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is also doing work in other European countries, so that we can better understand this disease.

Our position is that we will not remove the existing restrictions if the evidence points to the fact that those restrictions should remain. A number of hon. Members have talked about the precautionary principle. We are adopting a precautionary, evidence-based principle. We are very clear, though, that it should be a precautionary principle based on an assessment of risk, not theoretical hazard. That is where sometimes we have a difference of opinion with other European countries, because some of them look just at theoretical hazard rather than a true assessment of risk.

I want to turn now to the emergency authorisations that we made earlier this year, because this is a crucial point. If we want to make a precautionary restriction work, it is essential that we allow there to be some use in extreme cases—some use of emergency authorisations. That is now an established approach that we have. If we want a precautionary approach, over time fewer pesticides will be available on general licence, but as pesticides are removed as a precaution, it is important that we make available the opportunity to grant emergency authorisations. Otherwise we have all sorts of unintended consequences. We force farmers to start to use other chemicals that perhaps have escaped the attention of the scientific community, but are even more damaging. For instance, when the ban first came in, there was some evidence of a shift to using another chemical, called Mesurol, which was dangerous to birds. We then moved to ban that chemical, so we have to consider unintended consequences. We also have to consider the problem of resistance building up to other vital insecticides. For instance, there was growing resistance to overuse of pyrethroids. That is an issue to which we have to be sensitive.

To assess applications for emergency authorisations, we have a group of experts called the Expert Committee on Pesticides. That is a group of 15 academics. They are entomologists, toxicologists, professors and doctors, with unrivalled expertise in pesticides, toxicology and the environment. They give us advice on the applications that we receive for emergency authorisations.

It might be worth my pointing out that the use of emergency authorisations has grown in line with the withdrawal of pesticides for use on a general licence. In 2012, member states of the European Union granted a total of 193 emergency authorisations. Just 14 were from the UK in that year, making 7% of the total. In 2015, the number of emergency authorisations in the

EU grew to 414, but only 11 emergency authorisations were granted in the UK, representing just 3% of all emergency authorisations made in the European Union. I therefore put it to hon. Members that far from being cavalier about this, the UK has a proven track record of showing more caution and being more thorough in the way it assesses those applications. The growth in applications is no surprise, because if products are withdrawn from the market, there will be an increase in the number of emergency authorisations.