Michael Gove has backed tougher restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides after accepting that scientific evidence shows that they are harmful to bees and other pollinators.
Setting out his vision for a “Green Brexit”, the environment secretary said that unless the scientific evidence changed, the government would maintain any increased EU restrictions on pesticides after it leaves the bloc.
It follows advice from the government’s advisory body on pesticides, which said that the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids – particularly to bees and pollinators – were greater than previously understood, supporting the case for further restrictions.
Researchers estimated that the value of the UK’s 1,500 species of pollinators to crops was £400-£680million per year owing to improved productivity.
Mr Gove said: “I have set out our vision for a Green Brexit in which environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced.
“I’ve always been clear I will be led by the science on this matter. The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry, is greater than previously understood. I believe this justifies further restrictions on their use. We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.
“I recognise the impact further restrictions will have on farmers and I am keen to work with them to explore alternative approaches both now and as we design a new agricultural policy outside the European Union.”
Since December 2013, the EU has banned the use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam – on a number of crops attractive to bees, such as oilseed rape.
The European Commission has proposed restricting the same three neonicotinoids to only allow their use on plants in glasshouses. Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet and as seed treatments for winter cereals. Should this proposal be adopted, the UK would have the right to consider emergency authorisations. Mr Gove said it would only do so in exceptional circumstances where there was a real need for the products and the risk to bees and other pollinators was sufficiently low.
Friends of the Earth’s chief executive, Craig Bennett, told The Guardian: “Michael Gove is to be congratulated for listening to the experts on this issue and backing tougher restrictions. But lessons also need to be learned – we now need to move away from chemical-intensive farming and instead boost support for less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests.”