Neonic authorisation ‘was against expert advice’

The government’s controversial decision to grant temporary approval for the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide went against the recommendation of its own advisors, according to official papers obtained by campaigners.

The documents, obtained by Friends of the Earth (FoE) following a Freedom of Information request, reveal that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advised against the government granting ‘emergency authorisation’ for neonicotinoid pesticide use. 

In January, ministers granted a request for the emergency use of Syngenta Crop Protection UK's Cruiser SB insecticide, which contains thiomethoxam, a neonicotinoid insecticide linked to the collapse of bee populations.

Use was prohibited in 2018, but the ban came with a provision that emergency authorisations could be granted. 

DEFRA said that the authorisation for this emergency use was in response to an outbreak of beet yellows virus, a disease spread by aphids.

In their advice, the HSE raised several concerns about its use, including the impact on bees, according to FoE. Similarly, FoE said, the Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) raised concerns about the environmental implications associated with the pesticide, which it suggested could not be mitigated against, although it did not make a recommendation to refuse, or approve, the application.

DEFRA’s chief scientific Advisor, Professor Gideon Henderson, also made no recommendation, according to FoE. He suggested that a longer period between the treated sugar beet and the planting of flowering crops would reduce the risk to bees. 

However, Henderson also said that “Environmental damage of neonicotinoid use is clear and the evidence is increasing. Keeping neonicotinoid use to an absolute minimum will continue to be critical to support population recovery of bees and other species”.

FoE said the mitigation measures put in place by DEFRA, such as delaying the planting of flowering crops in the same field and using herbicides to remove flowering weeds from the crop, do not sufficiently address concerns about the environmental impacts of neonicotinoid use outlined by the government’s expert advisors.

The emergency use was opposed by 32 environmental groups and the Labour Party. The Wildlife Trusts began legal action to overturn the decision in January. 

The pesticide was never actually put into use by farmers, as the threat of aphids fell below the threshold that would have triggered its use. However, the government has indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet for another two years.

FoE campaigner, Sandra Bell, said: “For a government that boasts of protecting the environment, the decision to greenlight the use of this pesticide and ignore warnings about risks to bees and other species is completely at odds with a supposed green agenda.

“Unfortunately, this may only be a short reprieve for pollinators. Despite strong scientific evidence about the risks involved, the government has already indicated that it will consider authorising the use of this neonicotinoid on sugar beet in future years.”

FoE is also concerned by the “level of secrecy surrounding these decisions”. The NGOs’ lawyer, Katie de Kauwe, said: “Lengthy delays in obtaining this information only strengthen our calls for greater transparency. After submitting an information request in January this year, it has taken HSE double the normal amount of time to respond to our request – and they still haven’t disclosed everything we’ve asked for. 

“Unfortunately, we feel that HSE has not met its legal obligation to disclose environmental information, and this is not the first time it’s happened. We are therefore making a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner, owing to these repeated delays by HSE.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “Emergency authorisations for pesticides are only granted in exceptional circumstances where diseases or pests cannot be controlled by any other reasonable means. Pesticides can only be used where we judge there to be no unacceptable risks to human health, animal health and the environment.

“The authorisation was granted with strict conditions including only allowing application if the weather conditions over the winter led to a problem with aphids. In the event, that pest threshold was not passed so this seed treatment was not used this year.”

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