For the fourth consecutive year, the UK government has granted emergency authorisation for a pesticide previously banned due to its adverse effects on bees.

Despite industry promises to identify an alternative by the close of 2023, permission to utilise the neonicotinoid on sugar beet seeds was extended again.

The Wildlife Trusts condemned this decision, labelling it a dire blow to wildlife conservation.

Government officials defended the move, deeming it a vital and proportionate step in combating a destructive crop virus transmitted by aphids.

The neonicotinoid, banned since 2018, is only permitted if an independently verified level of Virus Yellows threat, set at a 65% infection rate across the national sugar beet crop, is confirmed by March.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) highlighted the significant impact of Virus Yellows, noting crop losses of up to 80% in recent years and the jeopardy it poses to over 9,500 jobs in the industry.

NFU’s sugar board chair, Michael Sly, expressed relief at the authorisation, emphasising its importance for farmers like him operating across Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

He said farmers would “ensure safe and responsible use of the treatment” if the pesticide had to be used.

“The homegrown sugar industry is working hard to find viable, long-term solutions to this disease,” he added.

However, environmental advocates caution against the use of the neonicotinoid, citing its detrimental effects on bee populations’ navigation and reproductive abilities.

Barnaby Coupe, land use policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, said the decision to authorise its use was “a deathblow for wildlife, a backwards step in evidence-based decision making, and a betrayal of farmers who are producing food sustainably”.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of environmental and rural campaign groups, said the decision “flies in the face of ecological sense”.

British Sugar had initially pledged to develop alternatives to the seed treatment within three years back in 2020.

Dan Green, the company’s agriculture director, said that research was continuing and included “research into how the industry can benefit from gene editing”.

The company anticipates the availability of Virus Yellows-resistant crops for commercial use by 2026.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer defended his decision, citing rigorous scientific evaluation and careful risk assessment as the basis for granting the authorisation.

“We recognise the damaging impact that an outbreak of beet yellow virus could have on farmer livelihoods. We therefore regard issuing an emergency authorisation as a necessary and proportionate measure,” he added.



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