Nick Smith MP has called on the Government to finally begin to deliver on their biodiversity promises at a Parliament debate on bees and pesticides.
The Shadow Minister for Food, Farming and Rural Affairs challenged the Government to “put things right” after failing to deliver on their commitment to “leave the environment in a better condition than they found it.”
The debate in Westminster Hall was the result of massive public support for protecting our bees, after fears the ban on using neonicotinoids on crops would be overturned.
A full transcript of the speech is below. You can also watch the full debate HERE,
This debate is timely. The public are very engaged on this issue; I have received more correspondence on this than on many other parliamentary matters in recent years. We are all in no doubt about the importance of pollinators to our food supply, biodiversity and our economy, but they are in very serious decline. In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that England had seen the greatest decline in the diversity of wild bees of anywhere in Europe. It stated:
“Since 1900, the UK has lost 20 species of bees A further 35 bee species are considered to be under threat of extinction.”
This debate is chance for the Government to reassure the public that those concerns are being taken seriously, as they review the evidence underpinning the 2013 EU ban over the next year. I am pleased that the Government now seem to have an open mind to considering the best available scientific information, given their previous opposition to the ban.
The Government still have not clarified what their current assessment of the latest evidence is and whether they consider it sufficient to support the EU ban. Since the ban, more scientific evidence has appeared emphasising the risk to bees. Examples include a link between the use of neonics and the decline of UK butterfly species, an impact on the pollination that bees provide, resulting in lower-quality apples, as others have mentioned, and emerging evidence that neonics could also affect the soil in which seeds are planted and the wild flowers that grow in it.
The more conservative analysis provided by Professor Charles Godfray and Angela McLean to the Government found a strong scientific consensus that bees exposed to these pesticides in fields suffer harm. However, it could not yet assess whether that harm ultimately leads to falls in overall bee populations. Professor Godfray’s paper highlighted one “gold standard” field study from Sweden, showing significant damage to the bumblebee populations. There was no effect on honeybees, but it is worth noting that honeybees pollinate only 5% to 15% of insect-pollinated crops. I would argue that the lack of a conclusive link with population decline should not, however, be used as a reason for ending EU restrictions. Where are the Government in their judgment of that evidence? Can the Minister give us an insight into how evidence-based policy will be applied?
Everyone here will have sympathy with farmers who are facing considerable difficulties establishing oilseed rape crops in areas under high pressure from cabbage stem flea beetle. In April, it was estimated that 5% of the winter oilseed rape crop had been lost to CSFB.
I appreciate the understandable desire to have every tool available in the toolbox to respond to CSFB, but although 70% of the oilseed rape crop was previously treated with neonics, this is the first harvest without neonics and DEFRA’s statistics for this year’s harvest have shown no change in oilseed rape yield. Waitrose has reported that, since it stopped using the pesticide on oilseed rape in 2012, it has not picked up any differences in yield, other than those attributed to seasonal, field and soil differences. Declines in yields in the eastern region, which have suffered the most from CSFB, have mirrored drops in other areas where that pest is not a problem. It would be good if the Minister said what assessment the Department had made of the effect of restrictions on yield. What amount of loss is considered an emergency warrant authorisation for the use of these pesticides?
There are concerns that farmers are having to resort to pyrethroid, an older pesticide, which is worse for pollinators and honeybees in particular. However, research seems to show that there has not been an increase in the use of that pesticide in the spring, which is the time of the highest risk to bees. The farming press have been publicising guidance from the Rothamsted institute on using sprays only when absolutely necessary, alongside other measures for avoiding flea beetle damage, including reducing cultivations and delaying drilling.
Farmers Weekly has even advised farmers that spraying pyrethroid for flea beetles is a “waste of time” and could kill beneficial insects that prey on the pests, as well as fuelling insecticide resistance.
It seems that the farming community has responded to those calls. A Newcastle University study found that 19% of farmers had changed their practices to take account of the non-availability of neonics. New technologies and redesigning crop rotations have been shown to reduce reliance on pesticides by 50%. There has also been valuable work in promoting beneficial insects, some of which are predators for the pests. I hope the Minister will outline what assessment his Department has made of the impact of using alternatives to neonics, which is one of its reasons for opposing the EU ban. What work is the Minister doing with the farming industry to ensure that independent advice is provided to farmers on sustainable pest management approaches?
Although today’s debate has focused on neonics, there are, of course, many reasons for the decline of pollinators, including habitat loss, climate change and pests and diseases.
There are many positives about the national pollinator strategy in addressing those causes, most critically the way in which it provides a call to action for many amazing local projects across the country to increase food, shelter and nesting sites. This has rightly tapped into what the Environmental Audit Committee describes as “an invaluable and committed resource”, but is this enough? I agree with the Buglife assessment that the national pollinator strategy is more of a framework than a programme. I would like to see more effort from the Government in creating better farm habitats. With three quarters of our land used for agriculture, our agri-environment policy is the best tool we have for effecting large-scale change.
There are concerns about the way in which the new greening requirements of the basic payment scheme are being implemented and there is no guarantee that it will deliver improvements for pollinators and other wildlife in the farmed landscape. What assessment has the Department made of implementation of the greening requirements of the basic payment scheme, particularly its effectiveness in delivering improvements for pollinators in the farmed landscape?
The new countryside stewardship scheme has targeted support for pollinators, but it has been a real worry that while 11,000 farmers have come out of entry-level stewardship agreements, only just over 2,300 applications were made by the deadline for the mid-tier stewardship scheme that replaced it. Will the Government agree to the NFU’s request for an urgent review of the Government’s implementation of the countryside stewardship scheme?
The Chair has changed. Mr Wilson, in 2013, the last Government were found to be failing in the majority of their environmental commitments, with 30% of UK ecosystem services, such as pollination, found to be in decline. They comprehensively failed to deliver on their biodiversity strategy and their promise at the beginning of that Government to leave the environment in a better condition than they found it. Over the next five years, with their 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity, they have an opportunity to start to put that right.