We should be in no doubt about the importance of pollinators to our food supply, biodiversity and economy and the worrying decline in bee numbers.
The European Commission announced in 2013 that it would restrict the use of neonicotinoids to crops that are not attractive to bees and other pollinators after the European Food Safety Authority concluded that three commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides pose an unacceptable danger to bees. The Coalition Government initially opposed the ban.
There are, of course, many reasons for the decline of pollinators, including habitat loss, climate change and pests and diseases. However, the government cannot continue to ignore the threat to bees from neonicotinoids. The European-wide ban represents a proportionate response to the evidence.
The current government approved an application for the ban to be lifted in autumn 2015 to allow chemicals to be sprayed on oilseed rape to help prevent crop damage. Government statistics, published in December, show that the average yield of UK oilseed rape actually increased in 2015 – the second harvest without neonicotinoids. It is vital to take a science-led approach to pesticide use and to consider how best to support farmers, protect wildlife and reverse the decline of pollinators.
The government is providing £900 million through its Countryside Stewardship scheme, which offers payments to farmers for taking actions for pollinators. However, the new ‘greening’ requirements of the scheme are not being implemented properly and there is no guarantee it will deliver improvements for pollinators. The government’s national pollinator strategy, which was published in 2014, does not go far enough. For example, it does not adequately tackle habitat destruction, damaging farming practices, bad planning decisions and neonicotinoid use. We need more leadership from government to support the creation of better farm habitats and in assessing alternatives to neonicotinoids, such as redesigning crop rotations.
The European Commission is currently reviewing the evidence and will look at the effects on bees from seed treatment and granule uses of the restricted neonicotinoids on any crop. The EC is expected to complete its assessment by the end of January 2017 and the UK government says it will base its view on future regulation on all the available scientific evidence. The government should keep an open mind in considering the evidence, especially given its previous opposition to the ban.