The new Government is keen to ensure the EU does not impose excessively cautious pesticides restrictions on UK farmers, according to Farming Minister George Eustice, ahead of a key decision on neonicotinoids.
The Government’s pesticides advisory bodies were understood to be discussing an emergency use application to allow farmers to use neonicotinoid seed treatments in autumn-sown oilseed rape this week.
The application, submitted by the NFU and supported by evidence from the companies who manufacture the products, is underpinned by concerns over the consequences for OSR production in the UK of the current EU ban.
Survey work by HGCA, published this April, estimated overall losses from cabbage stem flea beetle of 5 per cent in the current winter OSR crop in England and Wales, the first to be sown without access to the chemicals. With 1.5 per cent replanted, this equated to an estimated 22,000ha of lost crop.
In addition, the survey of 1,300 winter OSR growers, with crops equivalent to 8 per cent of the national area in England and Wales, showed 11 per cent would have planted additional areas if neonicotinoid seed treatments had been available. This was estimated to be equivalent to 38,000ha not planted in England.
But in some parts of the southern and eastern England, the damage far exceeded the wider 5 per cent estimate.
NFU vice president Guy Smith said: “Since last autumn we have heard from hundreds of our members growing oilseed rape that establishing the crop has become far more difficult and expensive, if not impossible, without neonicotinoid seed dressing.
“Because of this we want the authorities to allow farmers to use the seed treatments they need to make growing oilseed rape viable.”
There are also concerns about much greater use of pyrethroid sprays in the absence of neonicotinoids, on the back of evidence of increasing resistance of flea beetle to the chemicals.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) will assess the application before making recommendations to Ministers.
Mr Eustice said he would look at the NFU application but insisted it was too early to speculate on the outcome.
But he told Farmers Guardian: “We have generally taken the approach we should look carefully at risk, not just hazard. Some of these chemicals have hazard but the risk is very, very small.
“We also need to consider the unintended consequences of removing these products, which can mean other possibly more harmful products being used instead.
“We are very keen to ensure while we follow the evidence we don’t allow the EU to get too far down its precautionary principle route because we should keep a real focus on risk
“I don’t want to pre-judge the neonicotinoid application but we will look at it.”
The industry will be looking for an answer by early summer to ensure the seed can be made available this autumn.
Last year an emergency application by Syngenta for an autumn use of its neonicotinoid seed treatments was withdrawn in early July after the Government failed to give an answer in time.
While Defra was understood to be sympathetic to the request, it was blocked higher up the Government chain, as the controversy over the potential impact of the chemicals on bee health hit the headlines.
Mr Smith pointed out similar applications are being made elsewhere in the EU, while neonicotinoids continue to be used by oilseed rape growers across the world.
A number of member states have already successfully applied for derogations from the EU ban, including Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Denmark.
A Defra spokesperson said: “The Government remains committed to ensuring pesticides are available where they can be demonstrated to be safe to people and the environment.
“The emergency authorisation of certain pesticides is provided for under EU rules. Authorisation is not granted automatically and must be based on good-quality scientific evidence.”
Government chief scientist Professor Sir Mark Walport called for more rigorous clinical trials showing of the effects of the chemicals on bees in the field to be carried out.
Speaking at the Crop Protection Association convention in London last Thursday, Sir Mark, who opposed the ban in 2013, refused to be drawn on his current advice to the Government on use of the chemicals in the UK.
But he made it clear his view was influenced by what he described as an ‘important’ Swedish study on the impact of neonicotinoid-treated rapeseed on bees.
It produced mixed results, linking use of the chemicals in the field to a reduction in wild bee and solitary bee density and negative impacts on colony growth and reproduction. But it did not find any difference in honey bee colonies between the treated and untreated fields, suggesting ‘honey bees are more resilient to neonicotinoids than other species of bees’.
Asked if the Swedish study had changed his views, Sir Mark said he was ‘very keen’ for it to be incorporated into the ‘meta-analysis’ of all the evidence on neonicotinoids currently being updated by its authors Professor Charles Godfray and Angela McClean.
“I will be strongly guided by the conclusion. I present it to you as a significant piece of work,” he said.
Sir Mark also highlighted a large scale study of the impact of neonicotinoids currently being undertaken by the UK's centre for Ecology and Hydrology. "We have to recognise the gaps and as the evidence emerges we should be prepared to change our mind," he said.
Crop Protection Association chief executive Nick von Westenholz said Sir Mark was ‘absolutely right’ to say more evidence was required about the impact of neonicotinoids.
“It comes down to the interpretation of the precautionary principle. If the evidence is not clear then the decision has to take into account all factors, including the impact a ban will have on growers and in the UK, we have seen real problems.”
He said the industry did not see the Swedish research as the ‘definitive study ‘on neonicotinoids, pointing out it showed ‘very little impact on honey bees’ one of the big considerations in the debate over the use of the chemicals.
“It’s important we examine it and we try and understand why some of the results of the Swedish study aren’t consistent with some of the industry’s own studies.
NFU combinable crops board chairman Mike Hambly said: “It has already been increasingly difficult for arable farmers to control problems like cabbage stem flea beetle* and turnip yellows virus (spread by peach potato aphids) as well as many weed species such as blackgrass due to the reduced number of products available for control and resistance developing against those products that remain.
“The problem will only get worse if more products go, with vast ‘unintended’ consequences for farmers and wider society.”
But Dave Goulson, a Professor of Biology at Sussex University and a vocal campaigner to ban neonicotinoids accused the NFU of ‘wildly exaggerating crop losses’.
He said figures showed ‘low levels of damage to OSR last autumn’ and predicted ‘bumper crops of sunflower and maize right across Europe without neonics’.
“There is no evidence of any particular problem for OSR this spring, but nonetheless NFU are banging away again on the same old theme,” he said.
He added pyrethroids were ‘preferable’ to neonicotinoids because, ‘although also highly toxic to bees, they degrade quickly in the environment, rather than persisting for years as neonics do’.
Prof Goulson has been awarded Defra funding to study the impacts of neonicotinoids on bumblebees.
Friends of the Earth claimed 'numerous scientific studies' had been published since 2013, including the Swedish study, showing 'clear evidence of negative impacts on bees exposed to the neonicotinoids covered by the ban'.
FoE nature campaigner Sandra Bell said: “The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Neonicotinoid pesticides are harmful to bees and should have no place on our farms or gardens.“