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Rows of green crops planted in a field with green trees in the background, blue sky above

Neonicotinoid pesticide ban is lifted for UK farmers

08/02/2024 By Ben Eastick in News & updates

The UK government has given ‘emergency authorisation’ for farmers to use a previously banned pesticide that protects against yellows virus on sugar beet crops, following an application from the National Farmers Union (NFU).

In recognising the potential danger posed by yellows virus on sugar beet crops, the government has authorised ‘limited and controlled’ use of the seed treatment Cruiser SB for the 2024 growing season. Cruiser SB contains thiamethoxam, one of three neonicotinoids along with clothianidin and imidacloprid to be banned in 2018.

Though neonicotinoid seed treatments are harmful to wildlife and the environment, they protect sugar beet crop yields from the threat of yellows virus. With currently no viable alternative to neonicotinoids, the use of Cruiser SB will enable more UK farmers to stay in the sugar beet market and maintain domestic production. However, there is a pressing need to find a solution that both protects against pests and disease and is not harmful to the environment. 

A mass of green crops in an area of field, with a yellow crop field in the background

Sugar beet plants with yellows virus.

What are neonicotinoids and why are they important?

Neonicotinoids are insecticides, a type of pesticide that is used to kill insects. They are used globally on over 140 crop varieties to control the aphids (insects) that spread yellows virus. Neonicotinoids are important to the sugar industry because they protect sugar beet farming and farm yields.

Sugar beet is grown in the UK. The crop is used to make crystalline white sugar and other sugar products like golden syrup and invert sugar syrup, which Ragus supplies. Invert sugars can be found in many food and beverage items, from ice cream to soft drinks to cakes, and golden syrup is used widely in baking. 

Why are neonicotinoids banned?

Though effective against yellows virus, neonicotinoids have long been linked to the decline of bees and pollinators. Given that approximately 75% of food crops require pollination, such a decline has severe implications for the food system and global food security. In the UK, where a third of food crops are pollinated, pollinator activity is estimated to contribute hundreds of millions of pounds per year to the country’s economy.

A bee pollinating a yellow plant or crop, blurred background

Neonicotinoids affect the central nervous systems of bees, with high doses causing paralysis and death.

And neonicotinoids are not just harmful to pollinators. These chemical substances can remain active in the soil for a long time, running into and polluting streams and rivers. Recent research found that more that 10% of rivers in England contain neonicotinoids. England’s rivers are diverse ecosystems that host 3,800 invertebrate species, and the presence of neonicotinoids puts these species at risk.

The European Union (EU) temporarily banned neonicotinoids in 2013 while seeking more evidence on their potential harmful impact. In April 2018, the EU imposed an almost complete ban on the use of thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid, though they remain in use in other parts of the world. 

In 2018, when the ban was imposed, the UK government said it would still consider giving ‘emergency authorisation’ for the use of neonicotinoids. However, authorisation would only be granted for a temporary period and in certain circumstances ‘where it is necessary because of a danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means, and the use is limited and controlled.’

Brown sugar beet seeds Orange medicated sugar beet seeds Pink-purple pickled sugar beet seeds

Untreated sugar beet seeds (left), medicated sugar beet seeds (middle) and pesticide-treated pickled sugar beet seeds (right).

Overturning the ban supports the domestic sugar industry, UK farmers and jobs and helps stabilise price rises, but it does so at the expense of wildlife and the environment. The use of neonicotinoids is not a long-term solution and undermines the efforts of farmers who are committed to sustainable crop production. Though the sugar industry is exploring alternatives to using neonicotinoids, currently there are no viable options that are cost effective.

What impact will lifting the ban have on the UK sugar market?

The ban was partly responsible for farmers choosing to reduce investment in sugar beet. This reduced crop yield and the country’s domestic production and increased prices while also impacting sugar beet growers in the EU.

Though the lifting of the ban is not good for the environment, it will help UK sugar beet yields and support sugar beet growers to maintain domestic supply. This may stabilise domestic sugar prices, as undersupply may be less of an issue within the supply chain. At the very least, it will help mitigate price rises due to continuing geopolitical instability, in particular the war in Ukraine and attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

In past years, member states have applied for derogations to the EU ban to support their domestic sugar beet farming industries. These were ruled unlawful by the European Court of Justice, yet some countries, such as Romania, persisted in their use.

Rows of green crops planted in a field with green trees in the background, blue sky above

Healthy harvested sugar beet that will be refined into white crystalline table sugar, or sucrose, used to manufacture Ragus products like invert sugar syrup, golden syrup and liquid sugars.

In Ragus’ global sugar market report from May last year, we highlighted that Defra authorised 60% of sugar beet crops to be treated with neonicotinoids to protect against yellows virus. The quantity of sugar beet produced for 23/24 could increase to 950,000 tonnes for the 23/24 campaign. 

Ragus monitors the sugar beet harvest and market to assess the possible impact on our customers. To learn more about our pure sugars, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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