A new study on neonicotinoids, published on 16 August in the highly respected journal Nature Communications, adds yet more evidence to the case for banning the use of these controversial insecticides. But will this be enough to convince the government to commit to a permanent ban when the UK exits the European Union?

Crunch time for bees

There are three main points of significance to note in this newly published study. Number one, it is the first major study to link the use of neonicotinoids to losses across most wild bee species in real-world conditions, rather than the short-term laboratory studies of the past. Number two, this is a long-term study, based on 18 years of wild bee distribution data for 62 species of wild bee foraging in oilseed rape fields. And number three, the study comes at an important time given the potential policy vacuum following the UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016, the constant lobbying by companies and farmers to lift imposed bans, and an ongoing review of the evidence by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

Trying to ban bans

Since the European Union’s temporary ban on three commonly used neonicotinoids in 2013, chemical companies and farming groups have continued to exert pressure on national governments and the European powers to lift the ban, arguing that the evidence is inconclusive and that pesticides are needed to control pest populations and ensure sufficient crop yields.

Despite already substantial evidence that neonicotinoids can be harmful to bees, the UK government temporarily lifted the EU-wide ban in July 2015 (citing “emergency rules”) following an application by the UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU), to allow farmers to use two pesticides for 120 days on a small proportion of England’s oilseed rape crop. The NFU applied to lift the ban again in April 2016 (rejected) and in June 2016 (rejected again).

Although the EU ban on neonicotinoids is still currently active, the EFSA is expected to complete a risk evaluation of the impacts of these chemicals by January 2017. Studies like this recently published one, will be crucial in adding weight to the case for an extension of the EU ban. They will also have an impact on any decisions made by UK’s Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) that advises DEFRA. In the past, the EPC has been criticised for its lack of transparency – more than 100,000 people have signed a 38 Degrees petition calling for more information and visibility on any neonicotinoid-related decision.

The science is clear

Nature Communications’ study effectively sounds the death knell for neonicotinoids, showing strong evidence of increased bee extinction rates in response to neonicotinoid seed treatment, as used in oilseed rape (the crop that was temporarily exempted from the ban last year). Add to this a similar study, published last year in Nature, which showed how neonicotinoid insecticides negatively affects wild bees, and the substantial evidence presented in the Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (in which 1,121 peer-reviewed papers from the past five years were examined) and the verdict could not be clearer.

Does Brexit mean bee-exit?

A few weeks ago, Philip Hammond, the UK’s chancellor, guaranteed that the £6bn from the EU that currently supports farmers, funds research and provides investment in poorer parts of the country, would be maintained until 2020. That means £2.9bn (2014-2015) of EU money which British farmers benefited from in the form of agricultural subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy, will continue to be paid out by the government.

But what does this all mean in long term? And which of the EU’s current environmental regulations will the UK continue to maintain? Or will there be the bonfire of environmental regulations some commentators have predicted – including the EU’s ban on neonicotinoids?

Clearly, studies like this one, will add to the evidence base used by the EFSA in making future decisions: it therefore seems likely that a ban will continue to be enforced. But the question remains, how will the UK behave?

Collaborative policy-making

In light of the uncertainty about which policies the government will scrap and which ones it will maintain or rewrite, it is critically important that environmental organisations make their voices heard in support of policies that reduce the use of pesticides and support sustainable agricultural practices.

One example is Pesticide Action Network UK, which campaigns against the use of pesticides, and recently issued a five-point plan for a more sustainable UK farming sector: Five Steps Towards a More Sustainable Farming System. The steps include points such as using “subsidies to promote greener agricultural practices” and establishing “strong regulatory controls on pesticides including targets and incentives to cut pesticide use”.

Other environmental organisations have been issuing similar statements and briefings, but the real strength in influencing government and making sure environmental policies and regulations are not watered down, has to come from collaborative policy-making initiatives across non-governmental organisations and institutions.

In July this year, 85 organisations, including the Sustainable Food Trust, signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, urging him to “to take control of food, farming and fisheries for public good”, declaring that progress achieved over several governments “may be over-run by a drive for new trade deals at any cost, and pressures to de-regulate”. The challenge now is to provide more detail about specific policies and regulation which are at risk of being ignored or overturned in a post-Brexit Britain. 

Photograph: Chafer Machinery

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