[Valerie Vaz in the Chair] — Neonicotinoids on Crops

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

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

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I heard one of the most distressing anecdotes I have ever heard on the matter when I attended a Friends of the Earth event three years ago. Somebody at the event talked about an old brick wall adjacent to a garage in an urban area, which was—excuse the pun— a hive of activity, from which, at a particular time of year, all the solitary bumblebees who made their home in it would emerge. The local wildlife trust told people in its newsletter that if they went to the wall at the beginning of the summer, they would see all those bees emerging, which would be a sight to behold. When everyone went there, however, they found that the owners of the garage, completely oblivious to the sanctuary that it offered to the bumblebees, had knocked the wall down to rebuild the garage. Raising awareness of the fact that even things such as stone walls are important habitats is absolutely crucial.

I want to move on to a few of the other things that have been mentioned. Several hon. Members have asked why we are doing worse than other countries, and I think a lot of that might be down to the intensification of our farming during the second part of the 20th century. In addition, we cannot dictate how many people will be willing to become beekeepers. Several hon. Members mentioned the fact that oilseed rape yields increased in 2014 by 16%, but the point is that during 2014, seeds that had been treated with neonicotinoids were still being used. It is too early to predict the impact of the loss of those chemicals on yields. The situation is complex, because when people suffer severe crop damage as a result of cabbage stem flea beetle, they often go on, effectively, to replant the crop.

The British Beekeepers Association has suggested that the 30% drop in honey yields has been predominantly down to poor weather. I want to say a little bit about the study that revealed that if bumblebees were exposed to neonicotinoids, there would be fewer seeds in apples. Although we think that that is useful evidence, we do not think it necessarily proves a direct correlation between the loss of those seeds and the use of neonicotinoids.

Finally, I want to move on to some of the key points made by the shadow Minister. I believe I have covered many of the points he made, but I want to mention our countryside stewardship scheme. We have had strong uptake of the pollinator package, which we made clear would be a key part of that scheme. The number of applications this year was slightly below what we expected—that is not surprising, given the difficulties we had with the computer—but not that far below; we expected around 3,000 applications, and we had around 2,500. We will work to see whether we can improve uptake next year by getting a simpler application process online so that farmers can be guided to the right measures and put together agreements more easily. If we can get agreement from the European Union to simplify some of the over-burdensome regulation and reporting requirements that it insists on, I hope we will also be able to remove some of the bureaucracy from the schemes. They have been very successful and they have got a strong track record, and we would like to see more of them taken up.