Ben Eastick Written by Ben Eastick

Neonicotinoids update: more long-term thinking required

Sugar beet growers in the UK have long been struggling to contain the deadly Virus Yellows, which is transmitted by aphids. The insecticide used to treat it most effectively, neonicotinoids, was banned by the EU in 2018 in a move intended to protect bees and ecosystems. This blog explores what the UK government’s latest decision on neonicotinoids could mean for the domestic sugar industry.

The relationship between sugar beet and neonicotinoids up to now

The European Union (EU) banned the use of neonicotinoids on any outdoor crops in 2018, citing the insecticide’s threat to bees and other pollinators as its chief justification. For the sugar beet growing industry specifically, however, the insecticide is widely regarded as the most effective seed treatment control against the threat of Virus Yellows – the generalised name for three viruses that spread rapidly and devastate entire sugar beet yields in just a few weeks.

sugar beet virus yellows leaves

Virus Yellows meant UK sugar beet growers lost an average of 30% of their annual yield in 2019/2020.

Up until the EU ban in 2018, beet growers across the continent had used neonicotinoids to reduce and contain the spread of Virus Yellows in their fields. Since then, though, the ban has adversely affected beet growing in the UK and Europe. While the loss of neonicotinoids was not felt as greatly in 2019, it was felt more sharply throughout the continent in 2020. In the UK, for example, some growers have claimed that they have lost up to 80% of their yields in the current harvest.

Sugar beet growers across Europe and the UK have, therefore, been calling for special dispensation for the seed treatment. These calls received mixed results in 2020, with 21 emergency neonicotinoids authorisations granted by the EU, but none in the UK.

What is the neonicotinoids emergency authorisation?

Now the UK has left the EU, it has its own sovereign power to grant emergency neonicotinoids authorisations without requiring approval from Brussels. As a result, the UK has granted growers in the UK an emergency authorisation to use neonicotinoids in 2021. However, there remain strict conditions within which growers can use the insecticide in the short-term. The requirements, taken from the government’s statement, are as follows:

• the authorisation appears necessary because of a danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means (the case for need)
• use of the product will be limited and controlled
• there are special circumstances

Furthermore, the same source states that the risks of using neonicotinoids have been deemed acceptable because :

• As a non-flowering crop, sugar beet treated with insecticides would pose minimal risk to bees
• Risk to animals that may eat seedlings was acceptable and direct consumption of seeds highly unlikely
• There was assessed to be no other feasible option to control Yellows Virus
• The use of a stewardship scheme will enable use to be limited

This decision was made by the Secretary of State after discussion with Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) Ministers. Advice was also taken from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP), and Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser on the application.

You can find more information about the emergency authorisation here.

What does this mean for the sugar industry?

The response to the government’s decision has been divisive, with the battle lines drawn between beet growers and environmentalists. This is a battle that has also been played out in the media over the past week or so. On the positive front, it has helped bring about wider awareness of the issue. On the negative side, though, the condemning rhetoric used by both stakeholder groups is not conducive to a long-term solution. There are also, potential grounds to say that if the pressures continue to mount, there may be a reconsideration of the emergency authorisation and its requirements.

It seems the emergency authorisation is somewhat of a compromise. Hopefully, the 12-month authorisation is only a pragmatic, short-term solution to help the UK’s sugar industry recover from Virus Yellows while more investment is made into devising a more sustainable solution.

combine harvest sugar beet field

A long term solution – that satisfies the needs of all stakeholder groups – is now urgently required.

The UK’s sugar industry supports over 9500 jobs and is vital to many local economies, particularly in the East of England. Allowing the use of neonicotinoids under strict conditions will help support these jobs and economies, which is crucial given the recession the UK is in.

However, this pragmatic solution comes at a cost – the threat to bees and other pollinators. It is, therefore, imperative that the government regulates the neonicotinoids emergency authorisation with the utmost care and attention. Of course, this is a challenging demand, but it is necessary to minimise the potential ecological impact of the authorisation.

To support this approach, urgent action must now be taken by the government in terms of research and development over the course of the next 12 months. Discussions should involve a wide range of stakeholder groups and be geared towards a clear objective: finding a long-term, sustainable solution.

The emergency authorisation will enable beet growers to strengthen their crops, income and viability in the short-term, but now is the time for the government to seriously invest in a sustainable solution – for the benefit of our ecosystems, our economies, and our sugar industry.

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