The Government has today (Tuesday) published its response to a report on pollinators and pesticides by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that criticised its approach to the neonicotinoid issue.
The EAC report, published in April, urged Defra to support the EU ban on three seed treatments that comes into force across the EU on December 1.
MPs accused Defra, which has always opposed the restrictions, of ‘entangling economic factors with environmental decision making’ in its use of the precautionary principle on the subject. It said Defra’s stance risked overlooking the significant economic value of insect pollinators to UK agriculture’.
But in its response Defra maintained that there is insufficient evidence in the field to support the conclusion that neonicotinoids, at levels used on crops, pose a risk to bee populations.
It said: “Our current assessment of the evidence is that there is not an unacceptable risk to pollinators from the present uses of neonicotinoids. We therefore regard sweeping restrictions on neonicotinoids as unnecessary and the resultant costs as unjustified.”
It acknowledged that several laboratory studies have ‘raised concerns by demonstrating the potential for effects of neonicotinoids on bees’.
But, referring to a document it published in March, it said experience has shown that effects found in laboratory conditions are not always replicated in the field.
It said elements of the relevant laboratory studies, such as the doses used, were ‘not realistic in replicating field conditions’.
Defra also referred to ‘a number of field trials’ which ‘consistently show no unacceptable effects’. This includes a study by Defra’s Food and Environmental Research Agency (Fera), which found ‘no relationship between colony growth and neonicotinoid residues within pollen or nectar in the colonies’.
It acknowledged that the Fera study had ‘design limitations’ but stressed it was ‘not the sole basis or even the main basis for the Government’s conclusions’.
“It is on the basis of this broad view and not the Fera study alone that the Government presently considers that the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low,” it said.
Its response highlighted the important role played by pesticides in supporting the EU’s ability to produce crops and said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ that the European Commission ‘made no effort to assess the likely knock on implications’. It warned of significant issues with alternative products like pyrethroids.
The Government stressed that, despite its concerns, it will implement the restrictions ‘in full’ from December.
The decision includes a review of the restrictions in 2015. Defra said it was considering what the further evidence it would need to inform the review and future decision-making and said it must be ‘informed by the best possible science, including new work to address the shortcomings in the current evidence’.
The Department stressed that was ‘very much alive’ to concerns over the decline of pollinating insects. But it said: “The causes of these changes appear to be varied, with no single dominant threat. Intensification in land-use, habitat loss, pests, diseases, invasive species, inappropriate use of agrochemicals and climate change are all thought to be playing a part.”
It rejected calls by the committee to ban neonicotinoid products intended for garden use.
EAC chair Joan Walley said she was ‘disappointed’ the Government has ‘not accepted the great weight of scientific evidence that points to the need for the ban on these pesticides in line with the precautionary principle’.
“The Government acknowledges that it must implement the EU wide moratorium in the UK, but it is still refusing to acknowledge the case for a ban on these products being used in people’s gardens,” she said, adding that suspending the sale of neonicotinoids for home use would create an ‘urban safe haven for bees’.
NFU horticulture adviser Dr Chris Hartfield said the Government’s response was a ‘very balanced and sensible reaction to the EAC’s report’.
“Pollinators are essential for maintaining our biodiversity and pollinating many agricultural and horticultural crops. To ensure they are rightly protected from whatever damaging challenges they face, it is essential that our actions are led by the science,” he said.
But environmental campaigners criticised Defra’s stance. Friends of the Earth Nature Campaigner Sandra Bell, accused the Government of ‘turning a blind eye to the overwhelming scientific evidence on one of the main causes of massive bee-decline in the UK’.
“Instead of defending these pesticides and their manufacturers, Ministers should help farmers reduce their use and develop techniques to maintain yields,” she said.
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: “All those who care about the future of bees will share the Environmental Audit Committee’s disappointment that the Government still refuses to accept scientific evidence that neonicotinoid insecticides need to be banned.”