The EU’s ban on neonicotinoids: two years on
Two years on from the European Union’s (EU) ban on the use of neonicotinoids on any outdoor crop, we explore how sugar beet farmers are managing this challenging terrain, before looking at possible solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholder groups.
Why are neonicotinoids significant to sugar beet growers?
Transmitted by aphids, Virus Yellows can spread rapidly and decimate entire sugar beet plantations.
Neonicotinoids are insecticides used to protect sugar beet from the three types of Virus Yellows: beet yellowing virus (BYV), beet mild yellowing virus (BMYV) and beet chlorosis (BChV). These viruses are transmitted by aphids, which means they can spread rapidly, having the potential to devastate entire beet fields in just a matter of weeks.
As a result of this threat, growers must either spray or apply insecticides to the soil to control the spread of aphids, with neonicotinoids proven to produce the most effective results in terms of yield and efficiency. See our previous blog entry here for a closer look at the relationship between sugar beet and neonicotinoids.
The issue with neonicotinoids, however, is that the substance has long been linked to the decline of bees and other pollinators. Therefore, after growing – although still disputed – evidence, the use of neonicotinoids was banned by the European Union in April 2018. Herein lies the present-day challenge: how has the loss of neonicotinoids affected beet yield in Europe, and has there been any developments on creating an effective and sustainable alternative?
What have we learnt since the ban on neonicotinoids?
The most significant point is that we are yet to find an effective alternative to neonicotinoids, both in terms of yield and efficiency. There is still widespread discussion about the best course of action that growers should take to compensate for the loss of the substance, with farmers across Europe trialling different insecticides and techniques.
Many beet growers, for example, have been advised to use a single application of flonicamid. However, the trouble with using an insecticide with just one application is the timing. Spraying too early or too late has a critical – and often damaging – bearing on yield.
Similarly, other insecticides such as pyrethroid and carbamate have caused an increase in cost – both labour and capital – for little reward. Ultimately, this affects whether or not growers can turn a profit, and if they choose to keep growing beet.
The most telling sign that we have not found a viable alternative is that the EU has issued 67 different ‘emergency authorisations’ for use of neonicotinoid since 2018, which have been granted when there has been an obvious danger to farming or ecosystems. If the EU is permitting use in such cases, it clearly suggests that there is currently no viable alternative.
How has the loss of neonicotinoids affected beet growing this year?
In 2019, it was perhaps too early to tell how significantly the loss of neonicotinoids damaged beet yield. Indeed, last year may have been what some agricultural experts have described as a ‘honeymoon period’. Now, however, the results are starting to take effect. In the UK, Professor Mark Stevens of the British Beet Research Organisation claimed, “there have been unprecedented levels of aphids this year”, and time will tell whether this observation translates into reduced yields.
On the continent, events have been similarly discouraging. France in particular is predicted to suffer a 15-year low beet yield, with the Virus Yellows decimating up to 50% of the plantations in the Center-Val de Loire region. Faced with disaster, French growers have pleaded with the EU to use neonicotinoids as part of an ‘emergency authorisation’. Therefore, if there were any previous doubts about the significance of neonicotinoids, it seems that these have now been quashed.
Creating a solution that meets the needs of all stakeholders
The challenge today is creating a solution that satisfies the needs of all parties: environmentalists, sugar beet growers, and food manufacturers that rely on beet sugar to produce their products. While these different stakeholders often have strong opinions, there is agreement in that all parties want to find a fair solution that aligns with their respective interests.
Furthermore, we must pay attention to the challenges brought about by the current global climate. Growers form the foundations of food supply chains; if they cannot turn over a decent profit, they will diversify to other crops, just like they did in the 1970s. In the context of a global pandemic and subsequent recession, we cannot afford to let this happen. However, as we all know, the world we are living in today would not be the same without the critical role that bees play in pollinating our ecosystems. There must be a compromise.
Finding a solution in the UK
The outcome of Brexit will have a decisive impact on any solution in the UK. Currently, it seems like there are two routes the government could take. The first would be to uphold the ban on neonicotinoids – which, significantly, the UK voted against – and commit to finding a sustainable solution.
This could be through covering beet fields with biodegradable plastic film to reduce virus transmission. This plastic solution has been tested in the UK this year, and so far, yield results have been promising. However, adding and removing the plastic covers could result in increased cost and labour, which would likely be unpopular with growers.
Once the UK leaves the transition period, the second option is to reintroduce neonicotinoids. On first glance, this solution would be popular among growers but not among environmentalists. However, the reintroduction of neonicotinoids could be caveated. Unlike the EU’s hazard-based system for ‘emergency authorisation’, the UK could follow America’s lead and adopt a risk-based system.
This would allow growers to seek use of the substance if the risk were deemed high enough, which would better improve yield while minimising harm to bee populations as much as possible. This pragmatic solution could be an effective short-term fix while research institutions and insecticide producers focused on developing a long-term alternative to neonicotinoids.
The government must strike a compromise between environmentalists, beet growers, and food producers.
Whatever route the government takes, it will need to act fast once we leave the transition period, but the most important thing it can do is find a fair solution that meets the needs of all stakeholder groups.
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