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Neonicotinoids: What an extended ban could mean for UK growers

With the future use of neonicotinoids under threat, Abby Kellett asks what an extended ban could mean for UK growers.

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Neonicotinoids: The reality of an extended ban #neonics #clubhectare

THE world’s most widely used insecticides could be banned for use on all field crops this year, if proposals are approved by EU member states.


It follows a risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, which suggested the insecticides pose ‘high acute risks’ to bees.


This proceeds a partial temporary ban in 2013, which restricted farmers from using neonicotinoids on flowering crops, costing the industry about £500 million according to an EU report.


See also: Neonics ban costs industry £500 million


An extended ban, which would see the use of neonicotinoids forbidden on non-flowering crops, including cereals and sugar beet, is expected to heighten the risk of viral diseases, such as barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) and virus yellows. Inevitably, this will lead to greater use of insecticide sprays, experts have warned.


NFU vice-president and Essex arable farmer Guy Smith told Farmers Guardian an extended ban would have ‘serious consequences’, affecting farmers’ ability to grow food sustainably.


“With no restrictions of this kind anywhere else in the world, farmers would be put at an extreme competitive disadvantage without the use of neonicotinoids,” he said.


Wheat seed treatment, Deter (prothioconazole+clothianidin), and sugar beet seed treatment, Cruiser (thiamethoxam) are among the most commonly used products under threat.


Given the UK produces about 16 million tonnes of wheat and seven million tonnes of barley annually, the loss of Deter seed treatment in particular, would have a huge impact on UK cereal growers.

In the West, its removal would see BYDV become an even greater threat, according to NFU combinable crops board chairman and farmer Mike Hambly.


He said: “For people like myself who farm on the west of the country, the impact of the loss of neonics on oilseed rape has not been as great, but an extension of the ban would turn this right round because we are very exposed to BYDV.

Mike Hambly pic

The decision

Draft proposals will be considered and could be voted on at the next meeting of Standing Committee of Plants, Animals Food and Feed which is due to be held on May 17-18.


If a decision is made to ban the insecticides for use on all field crops on this date, neonicotinoid treatments may not be available for autumn planting.


Mr Hambly added: “You can see the urgency of the situation. We would very much hope any decision is made after the European Food Safety Authority review on the initial ban.


“There is not a second chance with BYDV. It is not a case of controlling the disease which is there, the only thing you can do is prevent infection in the first place, so the only option would be greater use of pyrethroid sprays.”


Similar repercussions were brought about after the initial ban, according to a recent report which found OSR growers in the derogation area, who had access to neonicotinoid treated seed, used 75 per cent less chemical to control cabbage stem flea beetle than those who did not have access.


Apart from greater use of pyrethroid sprays, alternative options for mitigating BYDV were limited and ‘pretty dramatic’ according to Mr Hambly.


“Growers can reduce the risk of BYDV by later planting, but this can be a real issue, particularly in northern regions. Some may move to spring cropping instead, but spring crops can also be affected,” he said.


As well is its application in protecting against BYDV, Deter-type seed treatments are a valuable tool in controlling slugs, relieving pressure on metaldehyde-based products.


“We are being encouraged for more responsible use of metaldehyde to keep it out of water courses and for a lot of people, Deter treatment is a sufficient mechanism to reduce slug population and to prevent reliance on metaldehyde,” said Mr Hambly.


See also: Extension of neonicotinoids ban slammed ‘wanton vandalism’


Providing adequate protection to some field boundaries will be impossible, he added, given buffer zone requirements which forbid sprayer operators from applying chemical next to water courses.


“Effectively, growers will not be able to treat right up to the boundary of all their fields, unlike seed treatments which allow the crop to be protected from edge to edge.”


Equally, Norfolk agronomist Robin Limb said the future of sugar beet production would be compromised if the neonicotinoid seed treatments, used namely for the control of virus yellows, was to be condemned.


“We no longer have the sprays we used to control virus yellows back in the 1970s when the virus decimated sugar beet crops, turning whole crops yellow,” said Mr Limb.


“If we lost the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments we would be in an even worse situation than we were then in terms of crop health and protection against viruses. It could have a serious impact on the future viability of the crop.”


While it is important to assess what you could save by banning neonicotinoids, it is also important to consider what you may lose, he added.


“Neonicotinoids are currently used in small amounts relative to other pesticides, about 60-80g per hectare.


“The introduction of neonics reduced the total amount of pesticides used locally by 10-fold when we moved away from granules in the 1990s, which were applied at much higher levels. So both environmentally and agronomically, it would be a huge loss to the industry.”


Impact on northern growers

Impact on northern growers

Contract farming more than 3,600 hectares (8,895 acres) in the Scottish Borders, David Fuller of McGregor Farms was concerned about the effects the ban would have on the 14 farms he was responsible for.


Mr Fuller uses the neonicotinoid Deter (clothianidin) to dress 60 per cent of his wheat and all his barley seed to protect against slugs and aphid vectors of BYDV.


He said: “Unlike further south where wheat is drilled late to manage black-grass, up here we have to drill early, as once the narrow window to drill is closed, that is it. Due to the damp summers we have, slugs can be a real issue and we find Deter covers us from grain hollowing.


“With aphids flying later into the year, we also use Deter to provide protection against BYDV. If we were to lose Deter, there is no doubt we would have to use more insecticide sprays to counter the loss, but this also depends on the weather being good enough to get out and spray. If it is not, the crop will go unprotected, which could be disastrous for yield come harvest.”


Mr Fuller makes the point many of the crop protection products used by growers can be found in supermarkets and garden centres around the country.


Of course, on a farm these products are used on an industrial scale. However, the targeted nature of seed treatments meant they were much more environmentally friendly than their spray and pellet counterparts, he said.

Neonics products under threat...


Active Ingredient

Example of Product



Redigo Deter, NipsIT INSIDE

Winter cereal seed treatments



Cruiser SB

Seed treatment on sugar beet, fodder beet
and swedes


Foliar sprays - aphids in potatoes


Insyst, Gazelle SG

Foliar sprays – aphids in potatoes

Source: SRUC

Threat to bees

Threat to bees

Among those supporting an extended neonicotinoid ban for all field crops are 17 of the UK’s leading wildlife, conservation and environment groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and The Wildlife Trust.


In a letter to Government, the organisations said: “Since 2013, many more independent laboratory and field studies have found neonics impairing the ability of different bee species to feed, navigate and reproduce, resulting in declining populations.”


In response to industry claims alternative pest control options were either not as effective or, in some cases, worse for the environment, ecologist Dr Penelope Whitehorn of Stirling University added: “There is plenty of evidence alternative pest control strategies really work.


See also: Calls for neonicotinoid ban to be extended to wheat to save the country's bees


“It is now vital Government properly supports farmers to gain the knowledge and tools to maximise yields and minimise chemical inputs using integrated pest management. This is the path to a more sustainable future.”


Friends of the Earth campaigner Paul de Zylva said he believed ‘science was catching up’ with the pesticide industry.


“The EU and UK Government must call time on neonics. Going neonic-free puts farmers more in control of their land, instead of having to defer to advice from pesticide companies.”


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