conservation environment food

The complex politics of neonicotinoids

This post is a collaboration with Poppy Cann, a student in London hoping to study Environmental Sciences at university this year.

Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticide that was banned by the EU in 2017. The pesticide is known to weaken bees’ immune systems, and also harms the development of baby bees’ brains, leaving them unable to fly. The EU ban was welcomed in 2017 by the environment secretary at the time.

However, on the 8th of January this year, DEFRA signed off on the emergency use of a pesticide containing ‘neonicotinoid thiamethoxam’, after the lobbying of 1,200 NFU members for its approval.

It’s for a specific use. The pesticide is planned for use on sugar beets, a crop at risk of ‘Virus Yellows disease’- a disease that caused farmers to lose up to 80% of crop yield in 2020. The authorisation was conducted with strict regulations – it has to meet three special circumstances before it can be used and with a limit of 120 days on the market.

There’s a logic here, as presented by sugar beet farmers and the trade body that buys everything they produce – British Sugar. Beets are harvested before they flower, so they present a relatively low risk to pollinators. Neonicotinoids are applied to the seed, not sprayed on fields afterwards. And with serious harvest losses last year, farmers can’t wait to see if the aphids that spread the virus are widespread in 2021. They don’t want to take that chance.

On the other hand, neonicotinoids accumulate in the soil and wash into waterways. There isn’t really a safe way to use them, and that’s why they were banned in the first place. Another problem is that in order to keep pollinators off the treated beets, it is standard practice to spray nearby wildflowers with herbicides. This is essentially protecting bees by ensuring there aren’t any to kill, which is hardly a healthy response to the loss of pollinating insects.

This is a classic conflict between short and long term interests. We know that pollinators play a vital role in food production. If we wanted to put a number on it, insect pollinators are thought to bring £400 million to the UK economy, though the cost of working without them is impossible to calculate. Farmers in the future will need those ‘pollination services’ just as much as farmers do today, and yet bee populations have declined over the last 50 years. That decline has to be reversed, and banning neonicotinoids is part of that. But it all looks rather different if you’re a beet farmer who lost half their income last year.

This is a story that has been told before. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warned us all of the use of chemical pesticides to the biosphere in 1962, leading to the 1972 ban of DDT in agriculture (though not in disease control). One of the things that made the ban possible is that there were alternatives, and the threat of a ban accelerated their development. The same is true here.

There isn’t a straightforward solution for farmers, but there are a variety of techniques for safeguarding beet crops against the virus. They vary from traditional spraying of aphids at one end of the scale, which we obviously want to avoid too, to full organic production at the other. New virus-resistant variants are on the way. Closer monitoring techniques are delivering results. And there’s an interesting point to note on organic production.

At the moment, British Sugar is the only major buyer of sugar in the country. As the only buyer, they hold what is known as monopsony power – the flipside of monopoly power, where there is only one seller. British Sugar doesn’t buy organic sugar, and so nobody in Britain grows it. But farmers in Germany, Denmark and Austria do produce it and it’s a growing market. We don’t grow sugar organically because British Sugar aren’t interested – and they’re the ones asking for the emergency use of neonicotinoids.  

The UK introduced its 10-point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ last year, and these sorts of loopholes appear to disregard the sheer importance of pollinators. We can’t ban things and then let them back in through the back door whenever a lobbyist asks nicely. It only undermines the adoption of alternatives and prolongs the collapse of pollinators. But neither should we let farmers go bust because of an aphid attack.

Perhaps the best way forward is to uphold the ban, and support farmers. They can be supported in trialling less chemically intensive techniques, including organic. Support could be in the form of insurance against harvest losses. And this can be done with and through British Sugar if they want to play their part, or it can be done despite them if they don’t. But either way, we do need the government to stand by its high rhetoric and protect biodiversity.

There’s a petition from the Wildlife Trusts that you can sign here.


  1. Thanks for a helpful commentary showing all the ‘trickiness’. We’ve all certainly got our work cut out trying to navigate to more sustainable future! I’m pretty alarmed by recent comments by ecologists etc, that they consider the ecological emergency if anything more serious than the climate one. Makes me feel I need to understand this relatively unexplored, less understood area, much better..

  2. I had wondered why it wasn’t possible to find organic British sugar and presumed it just wasn’t possible or feasible to grow. I hope that the new British farming subsidies will encourage British Sugar to adapt.

    1. It’s certainly difficult to grow, with some very common pests to contend with. There’s a gap in the market for someone to step into, but it would be a risk, yields would be lower and so it would be expensive. But I hope that we get organic British sugar sooner or later.

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