OPINION: Here's why farmers need banned pesticide to protect homegrown sugar

Fenland farmer Tom Clarke is one of 26 national case studies published by the NFU to show how farmer

Fenland farmer Tom Clarke says the government was right to authorise the emergency use of a banned pesticide to protect disease-ravaged sugar beet crops - Credit: Tom Clarke

The government's decision to authorise the emergency use of banned neonicotinoid pesticides to protect disease-ravaged sugar beet crops prompted outrage from environmental campaigners who fear the chemicals could harm bees. Here, "nature-friendly farmer" Tom Clarke explains why he thinks it is necessary.

For once, you can’t blame Brexit. Last week the UK government followed the lead of France, Germany and 10 other EU member states by giving emergency permission for farmers to use a controversial pesticide to fight a virus which could wipe out homegrown sugar production.

In the ensuing media uproar, many people had an understandable reaction that this was the beginning of a long-feared, post-Brexit bonfire of environmental standards.  

I'm a nature friendly-farmer based near Ely in Cambridgeshire. I back the broad ban on these neonicotinoid pesticides, and also the emergency and controlled use of them in this instance. 

I don't want to use insecticides at all. Farmers have grown too dependent on these chemicals.

There are other ways to control pests and on my farm we’re at the forefront of pursuing these, from beneficial insects to nurse crops. 

I also dedicate more than 65 rugby pitches worth of my land to measures which restore and enhance nature. I wouldn't put that at risk. 

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But, climate change is wreaking havoc on all the natural systems which our farming and food supply relies on.

Last winter was exceptionally mild in England, with few frosts. Record-breaking numbers of disease-carrying aphids survived winter. They transmit a kind of beet malaria (“virus yellows”) which decimates beet yields.

Some growers have lost 80pc of their crop. Some farms across the East are giving up growing beet for the first time in 100 years.

The future of East Anglia's sugar beet industry will be one of the topics discussed at a series of v

East Anglia's farmers have been granted temporary emergency approval to use banned neonicotinoid pesticides on sugar beet crops in 2021 - Credit: Chris Hill

In the longer-term brilliant scientists, perhaps based in Norwich or Cambridge, will develop solutions such as sugar beet varieties resistant to the disease. But these are some way off, even with the promise of new precision breeding techniques.  

So if these chems are "bee-killers" and have been banned, how do other countries justify continuing to use them? By using provisions in EU laws which allow emergency use of otherwise unpermitted chemicals when independent scientific experts agree it is justified. 

Strict conditions are applied to the emergency approval. EU scientists have agreed that evidence using neonics as a seed dressing (a tiny amount) in a non-flowering crop, with restrictions on following crops and other mitigations means the risk of harm to wildlife is acceptably low.

But why even carry on growing beet if the virus makes it uneconomic? The heartfelt cry has been: "Don’t sacrifice bees for the sake of sugar."

Plenty of farmers agree and have stopped. But if enough stop, the homegrown sugar industry, and it’s 10,000 associated jobs across the East will fold, and probably won't come back. Ireland stopped growing sugar in 2006, they are now totally reliant on imports.

Bumblebee on a poppy

Environmentalists have criticised Defra's decision to approve the emergency temporary use of neonicotinoid pesticides, previously banned due to fears over their impact on bees - Credit: Chris Gomersall / 2020 Vision

But isn’t sugar unhealthy; the cause of obesity and diabetes?

Yes, as a country we eat too much sugar. The government recommends we should halve our intake. But even that leaves one million tons of consumption, and the question: Who should grow that sugar, how and where?  

We could close down our homegrown sugar industry, and import all our sugar. That sugar would then come from EU beet growers who had used neonics with looser conditions than approved here. 

Or, it would come from tropical sugarcane which is grown using far worse pesticides and harms habitats like the Amazon or Great Barrier Reef.  

Here in the East, sugar beet is grown as part of a balanced crop rotation, and provides habitat for endangered species like stone curlews, Bewick’s swans and lapwing.   

The application for emergency use is temporary and comes with stricter conditions than anywhere in Europe. No seed would be treated unless an independent scientific forecast predicts it will be necessary. 

If it stays cold this winter we may not need to use them. I hope we don’t.  

Meanwhile, I and others will continue our frantic search for other measures which could bridge the gap until we can pioneer a chemical-free future for homegrown sugar, and lead the world in climate-friendly, nature-friendly food.

  • Tom Clarke runs a 400ha family farming business near Ely.

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