Why are we poisoning our world?

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, on why we must abandon bee-harming pesticides in agriculture.

The three most commonly used neonicotinoid insecticides were banned entirely for agricultural use in 2018 by the EU, a decision that the UK government supported. This decision was the culmination of decades of scientific research showing beyond doubt that these insecticides were harming bees and other wild insects, and more generally were polluting soils, leaching into freshwater systems, and contaminating wildflowers and hedgerow shrubs.

Neonics, as they are shortened to, are harmful to insect life in minuscule amounts; for example, just one teaspoon (5g) of neonicotinoid is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1 ¼ billion honeybees – enough dead bees to fill 4 long-wheelbase lorries.

They also remain in the environment, turning up in soils five years or more after they were last used - harming our many ground-nesting bees. Once in woody plants, such as flowering hedgerows, they persist for years. As a result of all this evidence, The European Food Standards Agency concluded that there were no safe uses for these chemicals.

But in spring 2021, the government gave in to pressure from the farming lobby and granted an exemption – or ‘derogation’ - for farmers to use the neonic thiamethoxam on sugar beet in 2021 to combat a virus spread by aphids, a serious problem that significantly reduced yields in recent years.

Luckily, the year’s cold start meant aphids were unlikely to be problematic so the derogation was not triggered. The threat remains, however.

So what are the issues?

While we should empathize with farmers, who have had a difficult time for years and now face Brexit-related problems, if one looks at the bigger picture, using neonics to save sugar beet makes no sense. We currently consume far too much sugar - a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic and associated surge in diabetes. So much so that our government introduced a sugar tax to try to reduce our intake. We should be consuming less.

So why would we allow the return of a pesticide which we know will do environmental harm, simply so that we can carry on eating too much of something that’s making us ill?

A counter-argument that has been used to bring back neonics is that exemptions have been granted in other countries (EG France), so if we do not allow UK farmers to use them we’ll just end up importing the crop and exporting the problem.

The flaw with this argument is that it leads inevitably to a race to the bottom. We also import food from the USA and China, which have much lower environmental and welfare standards – so should we drop ours to match?

The answer is not to drop our standards, but to prevent imports of food produced with lower standards – something that surely ought to be in our power following Brexit (and which is made very clear in the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, currently going through parliament, that I helped to write).

This might mean that sugar prices rise – which would be a good thing for the nation’s health.

It would also free up fertile land currently used for sugar beet for growing nutritious crops. We currently import 70% of our fruit and veg (exporting the environmental costs of producing them), when we have a climate and soils in which we could easily grow many more.

At a global scale, intensive farming is a major driver of the biodiversity crisis, in particular driving ongoing declines in insect populations. We should not forget that we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction event - driven by humans putting their own interests before those of the environment and future generations.

Britain has suffered more than most and is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. We need to move away from a farming system that too often looks for a chemical solution to problems, and which does not factor in the full environmental costs of decisions.

We need big-picture, joined-up thinking from our government, not caving in to lobby groups, and not putting the narrow economic interests of a few ahead of the long-term health of our environment.

Farming is heavily supported by taxpayer subsidies – if those subsidies were redirected, to support farmers in truly sustainable regenerative farming of nutritious crops aimed primarily at home consumption, then we could help farmers transition away from growing so much sugar - and more broadly to move away from growing crops in ways that degrade our shared environment.

*Professor Dave Goulson specialises in the ecology and conservation of insects, particularly bumblebees, and is the author of many books, including Silent Earth: Averting The Insect Apocalypse, the best-selling A Sting in the Tail and Gardening for Bumblebees.