UK breaks promise and approves a bee-harming pesticide

Learn about the UK government’s decision to break its promise to protect bees by reversing a ban on a harmful pesticide.
January 2021
Marcus Wilert

Marcus Wilert

Vice President, Responsible Investment team


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Despite being part of an EU-wide ban in 2018 on pesticides containing neonicotinoids – a class of chemical compounds believed to affect the nervous system of bees – the UK, along with ten European countries, has authorised the use of one such pesticide as an emergency measure to combat a virus affecting sugar beets.1

A report published in Nature2 in 2019 highlighted a severe decline in some bee species from 2007, coinciding with the introduction of neonicotinoid insecticides. As three-quarters of crops depend on pollinators, such impact is posing a critical threat both to biodiversity and our food system. While sugar beets are a non-flowering crop, the persistent nature of these pesticides present a risk through the contamination of the soil and potential runoff into water bodies.

Searching for solutions

Considering the decline of biodiversity and associated deterioration of ecosystem services critical to the agricultural sector, it is vital that companies develop alternatives to chemical-based products deemed to pose significant impact to species, and disclose clear and timebound strategies, including targets and metrics, to reduce their impact.

Apart from waiting for research & development breakthroughs, we see sustainable farming practices as critical to minimise the impact of the UK’s decision. From our engagement with pesticide suppliers, we learned that the visibility of customers’ use of pesticides is limited and more disclosure is needed to better understand its impact on ecosystem integrity.

Government moves to reverse bee-harming pesticide ban

The chair of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board issued a statement saying that the virus was having an “unprecedented impact on Britain’s sugar beet crop [and that the authorisation would be] crucial in ensuring that Britain’s sugar beet growers continue to have viable farm businesses”, and together with British Sugar lobbied the government for an emergency authorisation.3

We believe that the UK government, having taken the welcome decision to introduce a ban of neonicotinoids in 2018, should stick to the principles it then professed and seize this opportunity to transform the agricultural sector to be truly sustainable.

In its decision, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) refers to a plan “already being delivered” by the applicants to develop alternative, sustainable approaches to protect crops without the pesticides, including “development of resistant plant varieties, measures to improve seed germination and new practices for growers.”4 Defra writes that this plan anticipates that neonicotinoids will be needed for the coming three years. This means that the use of such pesticides in the sugar beet industry is effectively permitted until 2024, in a time when diminishing biodiversity is increasingly recognised as a challenge to food production, society and the economy.

Final thoughts

This year will see an increased focus on biodiversity as the UN convention is being updated during COP 15 this year and emerging reporting frameworks such as the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosure place more emphasis on corporate disclosure of biodiversity impacts. Companies and industry associations should take bold steps and aim for net-positive biodiversity impact to turn the tide.

Get to know the author

Marcus Wilert, Vice President, Responsible Investment team

Marcus joined the Responsible Investment team at BMO GAM in 2020 and is focusing on labour standards and biodiversity. Before joining BMO, Marcus spent a decade and a half in supply chain sustainability across the world. When not working, he enjoys sailing and Filipino martial arts.

2Nature, 2019

4Defra, 2021

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Risk warnings

Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

Use our handy glossary to look up any technical jargon you are unfamiliar with.

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