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NFU seeks autumn derogation from EU neonicotinoid ban

The union wants farmers to be able to use the banned seed treatments in oilseed rape crops sown this autumn.
The science on whether neonicotinoids harm bees remains hotly disputed
The science on whether neonicotinoids harm bees remains hotly disputed

THE NFU is seeking an emergency application to allow farmers to use neonicotinoid seed treatments for oilseed rape crops this autumn.


It has submitted a request to the Government for a derogation that would allow farmers to use seed treatments from Bayer and Syngenta.


The union is concerned at the extent of OSR crop damage in some parts of the country resulting from the lack of availability of neonicotinoids last autumn and is keen to avoid a repeat this year.


There are fears some areas will see a significant drop in OST yields this summer, while there is also concern that the ban on the seed treatments resulted in increased use of pesticide sprays, particularly pyrethroids.


Last year an application by Syngenta for a derogation that would have allowed UK farmers to use neonicotinoid seed treatments last autumn was withdrawn after the Government failed to give an answer in time.

It is understood, while Defra was sympathetic to the request, it was blocked higher up the Government chain.


A number of member states have already successfully applied for derogations from the ban. These are thought to include Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Denmark, with applications sought by farmer representatives, rather than the chemical companies behind the products.


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 without Neonicitonoid seed dressing.


"Some members have had to spray pyrethehoids repeatedly to keep cabbage stem flea beetle at bay and been left with half chewed crops. Others have lost the battle completely and thousands of acres have been ploughed in.


Because of this we have applied for an emergency application to allow farmers to use the seed dressings they need to make growing oilseed rape viable. We hear from the continent similar applications are being made elsewhere in the EU and, of course, neonicotonoids continue to be used by oilseed rape growers across the world.


"One of our fundamental demands in our Healthy Harvest campaign is British farmers have access to the same crop production toolbox as their competitors abroad."


An early study by HGCA last autumn suggested 17,000ha of OSR had been lost to flea beetle in the first autumn without neonicotinoids.


There is also growing concern about Pyrethroid resistance widespread in UK populations of cabbage stem flea beetle.

The EU neonicotinoid ban

  • The EU ban was introduced by the European Commission in autumn 2013, taking effect for crops planted from 2014. 
  • It prevents the authorisation of thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid as seed treatments or foliar applications on crops which are attractive to bees, such as oilseed rape.
  • The scientific basis for the ban was a report by the European Food Safety Authority, which concluded that the three products pose a ‘high risk’ to honey bees in crops producing nectar and pollen.
  • This conclusion was hotly disputed by the UK Government at the time, which opposed the ban.
  • The ban was initially termed a two-year suspension but no pathway has been outlined as to how it might be lifted. 

For more information on the Commission's policy on neonicotinoids click here


For EFSA’s view click here


The Government’s chief scientist Professor Sir Mark Walport indicated that the Government’s view on neonicotinoids had hardened since it initially opposed the EU ban in 2013.


Speaking at the Crop Protection Association convention in London, on 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.


He said more rigorous clinical trials showing the effects of the effects of the chemicals in the field were required before definite conclusions could be drawn, stressing that laboratory trials showing detrimental effects on bees were not sufficient.


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, which generated mixed conclusions.


The study found a reduction in wild bee and solitary bee density and 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’.


Sir Mark said he was keen to see the findings from the Swedish study incorporated into a ‘meta-analysis’ of all the evidence. This study, initially published in 2014, is currently being updated by its authors Professor Charles Godfray and Angela McClean.


Asked if the Swedish study had changed his views, Sir Mark said: “I am very keen for it to be incorporated into the meta-analysis and I will be strongly guided by the conclusion. I present it to you as a significant piece of work.”


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, which he predicted would yield further important evidence. 


He said he was working with Defra's Chief Scientist Professor Ian Boyd to develop the 'best advice to policymakers, including communicating uncertainty and updating advice as new and better research emerges'. 


"We have to recognise the gaps and as the evidence emerges we should be prepared to change our mind," he said. 


The key theme of his address at the convention was that 'science and values' were not the same thing and should be treated differently. "Scientists should focus on the rigorous application of gathering evidence and not stray into advocacy," he said. 

Bee protestors

Bee protestors

Environmentalists protesting against insecticides they claimed were damaging bee populations greeted delegates to the CPA convention on Thursday, despite the heavy rain. 

CPA view 

CPA chief executive Nick von Westenholz said Sir Mark was ‘absolutely right’ to say more evidence was required about the impact of neonicotinoids.


“The Government needs to make sure the stand it takes is based on evidence – it is important these field studies are completed as quickly as possible,” he said.


“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 grower and in the UK, we have seen real problems.


“HGCAs latest figures showed big problems in certain hotspot areas and there is every reason to believe this will be borne out in the final yield figures.”


He refuted the suggestion the Swedish study strengthened the case against neonicotinoids.


“I think it’s important that 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.


“There are people who ave this Swedish study as demonstrating a clear risk to wild bees and that this is the final word on it. That study also showed very little impact on honey bees.


“We as industry would not say this is the definitive study on it. We take a balanced approach on that. It would be nice to see some of the campaign groups take an equally balanced view.”


In his conference speech, Mr von Westenholz called on the new Conservative government support innovation in its aim of supporting sustainable intensification in agriculture.


He said: “The CPA is pleased to see the new government, in its manifesto, is committed to producing a 25 year vision for British farming, and has pledged to take a science led approach on GM crops and pesticides.


“A commitment to innovation through better regulation should also be at the heart of their approach. In responding to the challenge of food security, it will be innovation that allows us to both protect the environment and improve productivity over the coming decades.


“We recognise the need for regulation, but it must be effective, risk-based regulation that focuses on risk management, rather than risk avoidance, and on fostering innovation.”

Campaigners' view 

Friends of the Earth claimed 'numerous scientific studies' had been been published since 2013, including the Swedish study, showing 'clear evidence of negative impacts on bees exposed to the neonicotinoids covered by the ban'. 
Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that another neonicotinoid - thiacloprid – may also be causing harm to bees and should therefore also be subject to restrictions, FoE said.


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.   

“Bees are crucial to us all - stronger action is needed to halt their decline.    
“The UK Government must now listen to the science and support a permanent ban on neonicotinoids and extend it to all uses.”

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