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ClientEarth Communications

27th March 2024

Protecting species

The UK government has approved a bee-threatening pesticide in a potential breach of environmental law

The UK government has recently approved the use of a pesticide, despite it being in potential violation of environmental law. The approval was granted as an emergency authorisation for use on sugar beet crops in East Anglia.

A threat to bees and the environment

The approved pesticide poses risks to honey bees, other pollinators, and freshwater aquatic life. These pollinators are crucial for maintaining the health of our environment and food systems. But the active ingredient in the pesticide, thiamethoxam, is a serious potential threat to pollinators. A report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Expert Committee on Pesticides expressed serious concerns, pointing out that even non-lethal doses of thiamethoxam could compromise pollinators' ability to forage and navigate, potentially leading to a “reduction in honey bee survival”.

The pesticide belongs to a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, and is already banned in the EU. These chemicals can remain active in soil for years, making their way into streams and rivers. Recent studies have found more than one in ten English rivers contain them at levels unsafe for aquatic life.

Why are bees and other pollinators so vital to the environment?

  • Crop pollination: Honey bees are major pollinators of many food crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and oilseeds. Approximately one-third of the world's food supply is dependent on pollination, and honey bees contribute significantly to the production of a variety of crops.
  • Biodiversity: Pollination is essential for the reproduction of many wild plants, contributing to the maintenance and diversity of ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems, in turn, support a wide range of plant and animal species.
  • Food chain: Pollination is a critical link in the food chain. Many herbivorous animals depend on the healthy plants that result from successful pollination, sustaining, in turn, their predators.
  • Seed production: Pollination is essential for the production of seeds, ensuring the next generation of plants. This is crucial for the maintenance and regeneration of plant populations.

The decline in honey bee populations is a cause for concern globally, as it could have far-reaching consequences for agriculture and ecosystems. Efforts to protect honey bees and other pollinators are essential for maintaining the health of ecosystems and ensuring food security.

What is ClientEarth doing about it?

Our lawyers have sent a warning to the UK’s environmental watchdog that the government may have breached environmental law by approving the pesticide for use.

The approval was made by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with whom we have made requests to engage on the decision. But our concerns were not addressed - so we have escalated the matter by submitting a complaint to the Office of Environmental Protection.

Our UK Head, Kyle Lischak, said: “Contrary to the advice of a number of expert public bodies, the government has approved a pesticide that is banned in the EU because of the risks it poses to bees.

“We believe this approval breaches environmental law and has the potential to undermine the important role played by pollinators in food production and the pollination of wild plants.”

“This risk could be compounded in coming years if the government continues to grant emergency authorisations like this one, on what is, in our view, an unlawful basis.”

This is despite numerous assurances given by the government that the UK will maintain and increase standards of environmental protection.

Kyle added: “Farmers are custodians of much of our natural environment. The government must fully support them in making the switch to using environmentally sustainable methods of pest control that work with nature, instead of continuing to approve pesticides that carry risks of environmental harm."