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Michael Gove says UK will back wider ban on ‘bee-killing’ pesticides

PUBLISHED: 10:26 09 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:23 09 November 2017

Environment secretary Michael Gove at the Royal Norfolk Show 2017. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Environment secretary Michael Gove at the Royal Norfolk Show 2017. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Environment secretary Michael Gove has revealed the UK will back a total ban on neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe.

The reversal of the government’s stance on the pesticides is said to be justified by new scientific findings demonstrating their harm to bees and other pollinators, though farming groups have disputed the strength of the evidence.

In a letter to The Guardian, Mr Gove quoted figures from a German study which linked the chemicals to a 75pc reduction in flying insect in the country.

The use of neonicotinoids has been banned on flowering crops such as oilseed rape in the EU since 2013.

The European Commission is proposing to extend the ban to only allow their use on plants in glasshouses.

But the pesticides are still widely used to protect wheat and other crops, meaning a wider-reaching ban could be hugely disruptive for UK and European farmers.

In a separate statement Mr Gove said: “I have set out our vision for a Green Brexit in which environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced.

“I’ve always been clear I will be led by the science on this matter. The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry, is greater than previously understood. I believe this justifies further restrictions on their use. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”

He added: “I recognise the impact further restrictions will have on farmers and I am keen to work with them to explore alternative approaches both now and as we design a new agricultural policy outside the EU.”

A spokesman for Defra said the UK would have the right to consider “emergency authorisations” in “exceptional circumstances” should the wider ban be implemented.

The announcement comes with an update to Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy, launched in 2014, which is said to be showing “encouraging progress” on its aim to make farms, towns, cities and the countryside better places for bees and other pollinators.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has campaigned against the ban and said it would continue to lobby government.

An NFU spokesman said: “Farmers are acutely aware that bees play a crucial role in food production. Farmers rely on bees to pollinate crops and have planted around 10,000 football pitches of flower habitat across the country to support a healthy bee population and give them a good home.

“We deeply regret the decision the government has taken on this issue as we don’t believe the evidence justifies this abrupt change in policy. We will continue to speak to the government about how the impact of the decision can best be mitigated so that farmers can maintain sustainable and productive cropping systems.”

• What are “neonicotinoid” pesticides?

They are a group of pesticides designed to protect crops such as oil seed rape and cereals from pests such as sap-sucking aphids and cabbage stem flea beetles.

• How do they work?

They are commonly applied in a coating on the seeds, and taken up by the plant into its roots, stems, leaves and flowers and transmitted into pest species when they feed on them, acting on the insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis and death.

• What is the problem with them?

Increasing evidence shows they also cause harm to important pollinating insects such as bees, with “sub-lethal” effects such as damaging the ability of bees to forage for food and reducing egg-laying by queen bumblebees.

Environmentalists also say the chemicals can run off into streams, rivers and the wider environment where they can affect other wild plants and creatures.

• Why are pollinators important?

Pollinating insects are a key part of the agricultural system in the countryside, adding an estimated £480m to £600m to the value of crops in the UK each year, boosting yields and quality of many fruits, vegetables and other produce.

They are also a significant part of food chains in the natural world, and how populations of insects are doing is a key indicator of the health of the wider environment.

:: What is the current situation with neonicotinoid pesticides?

Three key neonicotinoids – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – have been banned for use on crops attractive to bees such as oil seed rape, since 2013, as well as from products used by amateur gardeners.

:: What happens next?

The European Commission has proposed extending the ban to all crops outside greenhouses, which would include crops such as sugar beet and seed treatments for winter cereals.

Mr Gove’s announcement signals support for this move, which could be voted on in Brussels in the next few months, with a ban coming in six months later.

If the restrictions are brought in, it remains to be seen what farmers – who say they need the chemicals to protect their crops – will use instead.

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