Conservative politicians are trying to stop a complete EU ban on bee-harming pesticides, despite the new environment secretary Michael Gove’s statement earlier this week, in which he said “I absolutely don’t want to water down” EU environmental protections.
Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used insecticides but have been banned on flowering crops in the EU since 2013. However, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) found in 2016 that use of the pesticides on all crops poses a high risk to bees. As a result, the European commission has proposed a ban on all uses outside greenhouses, first revealed by the Guardian in March.
On Thursday, an attempt by the Conservative MEP Julie Girling to block the full ban will be voted on by the European parliament’s environment committee. Most of the UK’s environmental protections derive from the EU and since the Brexit result many green groups have been concerned that these could be weakened after Britain leaves the EU.
Gove gave reassurances on Monday, telling BBC Farming Today: “We need to maintain, and where possible enhance, environmental and animal welfare standards. We have a strong position and good track record in both of those areas and I do not for a moment want to see either of them diluted or eroded.”
The Guardian asked the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if Gove backed Girling’s attempt to block the pesticide ban. A spokeswoman did not answer directly but said: “The government has fully applied restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids introduced by the EU. We make all decisions on pesticides based on the science.”
Matt Shardlow, at the conservation charity Buglife, said: “Conservative politicians have repeatedly led the charge to face down measures to restrict harmful pesticides. Buglife would like to see a clear commitment from the Conservativesthat after Brexit our environment and health will be in safe hands. It is time to start listening to the people and respecting the experts.”
Martin Dermine, from Pesticide Action Network Europe, said Girling’s arguments against the full ban were no different to those put forward by the pesticide manufacturers: “Such a similarity between an MEP’s work and the industry’s arguments is shocking. Bee-killing neonicotinoids should never have been authorised and it is more than time to ban them.”
Girling said there was no link between her and the pesticide industry: “I just happen to agree with them on this issue. I believe that the sustainable use of pesticides is a vital part of providing safe and affordable food production.”
The MEP said she agreed with Gove’s reassurances: “His statements do not support policy which seeks to ban all pesticides indiscriminately.”
Graeme Taylor, from the European Crop Protection Association, said: “The size of the toolbox available to farmers to allow them to produce is being constantly depleted by decisions that are based on fear and misinformation rather than fact, and without consideration of the consequences for European agriculture.”
In a debate in the European parliament environment committee on Wednesday, Girling was challenged by a commission official Klaus Berend. He said arguments over whether widespread harm to bees had been proven or not missed the point of the EU regulations: “The principle of the regulation is that safe use must be demonstrated, not the other way around.” With Efsa finding high risks to bees, Berend said: “There is no other choice for the commission than to act.”
The idea that pesticides are essential to feed a fast-growing global population was declared a “myth” in March, in a report by UN food and pollution experts. It severely criticised the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.
In April, a major study found virtually all farms could significantly cut their pesticide use while still producing as much food, and that chemical treatments could be cut without affecting farm profits on more than three-quarters of farms.
Update 11.20am BST: MEP Girling’s attempt to block the full ban on neonicotinoids was rejected by the European Parliament’s environment committee on Thursday. In the vote, 43 MEPs voted against Girling’s objections, eight voted in favour and seven abstained.