On bees and beets: sugar coating the insect apocalypse

Bees: a crucial pollinator under threat. Photo credit: Eric Ward / Unsplash

In the second of two articles about the threat to bees posed by the post-Brexit re-introduction of dangerous insecticides, Ross McNally lays out the scientific and political context.  

Let’s imagine that, hypothetically, a long-term effect of COVID-19 turned out to be more severe morning sickness in pregnant women.  Imagine that, to combat this, the government granted ‘emergency’ approvals of thalidomide for prescription by GPs.  There would rightly be uproar: protests, lawsuits, and probably not far short of a lynching for the health minister responsible.

Well, for bees and other invertebrates, that’s roughly analogous to what Defra did a couple of weeks ago, in authorising, for the second year in a row, the use of the neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam for use on this year’s sugar beet crops.

Thiamethoxam was one of three neonicotinoids banned from outdoor agricultural use by the EU in 2018, owing to a growing mountain of evidence of their adverse effects on pollinating insects, the EU being particularly concerned for honeybees.  

No safe use’ of neonicotinoids

As pointed out by Professor Dave Goulson, one of the UK’s preeminent bee ecologists based at the University of Sussex, the European Food Standards Agency reviewed this research and concluded that, in Goulson’s words, “There were no safe uses for these chemicals.”   

Neonicotinoids can be directly fatal at high enough doses – according to Goulson, “Just 1 teaspoon (5g) of is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 million honeybees.” For non-target species, like bees, the threat is still significant from sublethal doses which lead to adverse effects on survival and colony growth, by disrupting, among other things, the insects’ navigational memory.

Take thiamethoxam specifically.  As mentioned, it’s banned from outdoor use in the EU and UK because it’s particularly harmful to insects (and also a likely human carcinogen).  It has been experimentally shown to significantly inhibit honeybees from finding their way back to their hive after foraging, potentially doubling a bee’s probability of dying on a given day.  It is implicated in the colony collapse disorder which is afflicting honeybees worldwide and which has to be seen in a context where the rest of the UK’s more than 270 species of bee, most of which are solitary, are generally in steady decline.

Given such impacts, it will be no surprise that such chemicals are banned, and that any exceptions would have to be for extraordinarily good reasons.  Which brings us to sugar beet.

Sugar beet – a highly subsidised crop

A cultivar of Beta vulgaris – the same wild progenitor species as beetroot – the primary product from sugar beet is, as the name suggests, sugar, of which British beet supplies over 50 per cent of domestic demand.

The issue is that the crop is vulnerable to infection by several viral pathogens that are significantly detrimental to yields.  Because these viruses are vectored by aphid pests, these aphids are the target for control, and the most effective control is the use of neonicotinoids. These are typically applied to the beet seeds prior to sowing.  

Most of the British sugar beet crop is grown in East Anglia and the East Midlands, with smaller proportions being grown in Yorkshire and here in Sussex.  The entirety of this national crop is processed by just one company: British Sugar plc, with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) negotiating on behalf of farmers.

Sugar is essentially a luxury commodity; it is certainly not a staple food and makes no significant contribution to nutrition or food security.  On the contrary, it is widely recognised to be detrimental to health at more than a very limited proportion of dietary intake. Yet the crop has been heavily subsidised for years: “Since before Britain joined the EU and subsidy has continued under EU membership (not directly but via farm subsidies). It is also protected by tariffs on sugar imported from outside the EU.”

Is use of this once banned pesticide justified?

Indeed, this crop is afforded such priority that the government is merrily approving the diffusion of banned neurotoxins into our ecosystems in order to protect it. Defra is bypassing existing legislation to allow beet farmers, assumed to be its supporters, to use a previously banned dangerous insecticide. 

We must seriously question whether this is justified, especially given that our reliance on insect pollination for the vast majority of our food means that dousing the land in indiscriminate insecticides likely makes a net negative contribution to long-term food security. 

In addition, this nutritionally useless crop is taking up some of the best arable land in the country, when as Goulson highlights, “We currently import 70 per cent of our fruit and veg.”  

The advocates of this environmental poisoning claim that because sugar beet is harvested before flowering, there is less of a threat to bees because they won’t be foraging on the crops.  This, however, is to miss the point and could be seen to be deliberately disingenuous.  Research using oilseed rape found that almost all of the neonicotinoid residue collected by honeybees comes from wild flowering plants close to crop fields, as opposed to the crops themselves.  Whoever would have thought that highly water-soluble chemicals applied to crops just might leach into the soil and contaminate nearby wild plants? Not, apparently, the NFU.  

What a shock it will be to them when they discover that those same highly water-soluble chemicals also find their way into rivers in the catchments where sugar beet is grown, thus also poisoning the aquatic invertebrates at the base of riverine food webs.

NFU lobbied government behind the scenes

But of course, the NFU and British Sugar know perfectly well the damage being done by the insecticides whose use they are pushing.  That is why, at the end of 2020, just prior to Defra’s approval (later withdrawn) of thiamethoxam use on the 2021 beet crop, the NFU was coordinating secretive campaigns to lobby the Environment Secretary on precisely this issue.

Why should we sacrifice biodiversity (and indeed our food security) by bowing to the influence of unscrupulous lobby groups who consistently push for deregulation of environmental and labour protections and are typically unrepresentative even of most farmers in their hostility to wildlife, simply in order to pad the bottom line of a monopoly company?

This is the kind of thing that the new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) are supposed to change, moving instead to incentivising more sustainable farming or, where this is not viable, nature restoration.  The ongoing farming of unhealthy crops, reliant on banned chemical pesticides suggests that ELMs may not be worth the paper they are written on.

Ecosystem health crucial to tackling climate change

We are facing ecological and climate catastrophes, each of which exacerbates the other, and which together jeopardise every aspect of our lives, not least food security.  The UN has declared that if these crises are to be mitigated, the current decade must be one of global ecosystem restoration.  

Pollinators around the world, on which around 75 per cent of our food crops and almost all wild flowering plants depend, face a litany of threats.  Continuing use of toxic insecticides is fundamentally at odds with the urgent need to protect and restore ecosystems.

To use these on sugar beet, of all crops, is profligate and counterproductive to the point of lunacy. In George Monbiot’s view, that is how capitalism has always treated the natural world, but it cannot be allowed to do so any longer. 

So please make a buzz for the bees: read Ginny Foster’s earlier piece in Sussex Bylines, sign petitions, contact your MPs, and spread the word.  Don’t let this Spring be silent.

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