Report warns against letting pesticide companies fund key research for government plan to boost pollinators

The Guardian
by Damian Carrington

Credit: Ken Thomas

Criticial future research on the plight of bees risks being tainted by corporate funding, according to a report from MPs published on Monday. Pollinators play a vital role in fertilising three-quarters of all food crops but have declined due to loss of habitat, disease and pesticide use. New scientific research forms a key part of the government’s plan to boost pollinators but will be funded by pesticide manufacturers.

UK environment ministers failed in their attempt in 2013 to block an EU-wide ban on some insecticides linked to serious harm in bees and theenvironmental audit select committee (EAC) report urges ministers to end their opposition, arguing there is now even more evidence of damage. Millions of member of the public have supported the ban.

“When it comes to research on pesticides, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is content to let the manufacturers fund the work,” said EAC chair Joan Walley. “This testifies to a loss of environmental protection capacity in the department responsible for it. If the research is to command public confidence, independent controls need to be maintained at every step. Unlike other research funded by pesticide companies, these studies also need to be peer-reviewed and published in full”.

The EAC report found: “New studies have added weight to those that indicated a harmful link between pesticide use and pollinator populations.” Walley said: ”Defra should make clear that it now accepts the ban and will not seek to overturn it when the European commission conducts a review next year.” She added that ministers should make it clear that attempts to gain “emergency” exemptions, as pesticide-maker Syngenta did recently, will be turned down.

“Pollinator decline is now the number one environmental concern with the public,” said Matt Shardlow, at campaign group Buglife. “Defra’s national pollinator strategy is an opportunity for the new environment secretary Liz Truss to establish commitment across the cabinet.” Ahead of the EU insecticide ban, Truss’s predecessor Owen Paterson had privately assured Syngenta that “the UK has been very active” in opposing the ban and “our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days”.

Syngenta declined to comment on the new EAC report. But Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association, of which Syngenta is a member, said the report was disappointing. “The government’s own expert technical agency, the Chemicals Regulation Directorate, has recently stated that there is no further evidence that changes the government’s position that neonicotinoids are safe for use in the environment,” he said. “It is vital that any decisions are based on sound science rather than emotive public campaigns.”

Von Westenholz said the national pollinator strategy, currently being finalised, should explicitly acknowledge that “pesticides are a vital resource for food production and are highly regulated”.

Julian Little, at Bayer CropScience, said: “We fully support the strategy and believe that if implemented fully, it will result in the safeguarding and promoting of both honey bees and wild pollinators that are so vital to ensuring pollination of both crops and wild flowers.” Bayer CropScience, like Syngenta, makes the chemicals banned by the EU which are called neonicotinoids and are the world’s most widely used insecticides.

Friends of the Earth’s nature campaigner Sandra Bell, said: “If the government’s action plan to protect Britain’s pollinators is to have any credibility it must back the ban on bee-harming insecticides and set out a clear strategy to reduce pesticide use.” The UK government is bound by EU law to reduce pesticide use but has chosen to set no targets or timetable. Bell pointed out that the EAC report criticises Defra for being unable to demonstrate clearly that the neonicotinoid ban will reduce farmer’s crop yields.

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