This transcript of the House of Commons debate illustrates the seriousness of the situation regarding honey bee and other pollinator losses. The scientific article that underpins the debate is also featured in this issue of Apis UK and is entitled ‘Are we poisoning our bees’. Ed.
The House of Commons Debate (Transcript)
25 Jan 2011 : Neonicotinoid Pesticides
Martin Caton MP (Gower) (Lab): Over recent years, there has been an alarming worldwide reduction in bee numbers. In the UK, similar declines have occurred in wild pollinators such as bumblebees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies. The causes of those losses have been much debated. When I wrote to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last month, Lord Henley replied to say that, in Britain at least, the combined factors included poor spring and summer weather, the varroa mite and other husbandry issues. My letter to the Department had been about the possibility that a group of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, and similar products, were contributing to the demise of bees and other pollinating insects. In response, Lord Henley said: “In the UK, neo-nicotinoid insecticides are used primarily in commercial agriculture and horticulture production. Only a very small proportion is used in home garden products so the potential risk to bees, if any, from this type of product is negligible”. He also assured me that the UK pesticide approval regime was robust and adequate. I sought the debate today to urge the Government to be prepared to take a step back from that position and to look again at what is happening to the small creatures that contribute so much to our environment and food production. In particular, I ask them to examine, first, the growing weight of science that shows how neonicotinoid use and invertebrate losses are likely to be linked and, secondly, the evidence that the pesticide assessment regimes in Europe and the United States, as applied to systemics and the potential for environmental damage, are inadequate in identifying what is really going on. In 2009 the British charity Buglife-The Invertebrate Conservation Trust conducted a review of all the available scientific literature about the effects of neonicotinoids and the Bayer product Imidacloprid in particular on non-target insect species. The report referred to 100 scientific studies and papers, and highlighted some real concerns that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinating insects. It also identified a particular problem of insects ingesting tiny doses on repeated visits to treated plants. The testing methodology of the Imidacloprid draft assessment report under EU regulations was not sufficiently sensitive to detect that.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. He brings terrific expertise to the subject. Does he agree that, if there is any doubt about the adequacy of the regulatory regimes in Europe and the United States-and this is a classic instance-the precautionary principle should be applied? Given the crucial importance of bees and other insects in the ecosystem, it is a risk that we cannot afford to take.
Martin Caton: I go a long way with my right hon. Friend, but I do not think that the precautionary principle should be applied regardless of the degree of doubt; I shall come on to that a little later. However, if there is substantial doubt and good scientific evidence to give rise to doubt, the precautionary principle certainly should kick in.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for obtaining the debate, because like him I believe that the issue of bees and pollination is extremely important, particularly in the west country where we have had problems with colony collapse. Does he agree that the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, to some degree, from France, Germany and Italy, where the substances have been banned, with a subsequent increase in the bee population, seems to point to a significant problem?
Martin Caton: I do agree. The evidence of increases is largely anecdotal, but I shall quote the President of the Italian Association of Beekeepers, because in the Po valley a ban was introduced. He said: “On behalf of bee-farmers working in a countryside dominated by maize crops, I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture to confirm the great news, for once: thanks to the suspension of the bee-killing seed coating, the hives in the Po Valley are flourishing again.”
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in European countries the initial licensing for such controversial pesticides is done by way of a draft assessment report organised by the manufacturer? Shockingly, the DAR for the commonest neonicotinoid used in Europe was put together by Bayer, who, surprise, surprise, did not find a problem with it. Does he agree that there is a problem with metholodogy?
Martin Caton: The hon. Lady has taken me to a point in my speech where I was intending to say the same thing; I may not have to say it now, thanks to her. On the basis of its findings, Buglife called on the Government to reconsider the position of neonicotinoids, and to suspend existing outdoor approvals for the products pending the findings of a review. It also called for the development of international methodologies for assessing the effects of systemic pesticides and sub-lethal impacts on invertebrates.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): There are a large number of beekeepers in my constituency, many of whom have contacted me about the issue, so I am pleased that the debate is happening, and grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing it. It is important that the chemicals regulation directorate is encouraged to think about these issues and, if necessary, to research the health of bees in general. I certainly encourage the Minister to respond to that.
Martin Caton: That is a fair point. It is useful that the president of the British Beekeepers’ Association issued a statement just a couple of days ago. Traditionally, that organisation has not been at the forefront of trying to get action taken, but it is now realising how serious the situation is and it is calling for an urgent review. We are all beginning to sing from the same hymn sheet. The Government asked the chemicals regulation directorate to look at the Buglife report. In a letter to Buglife and the Soil Association, Lord Henley said that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides had conducted a further review. However, earlier this month, someone contacted the ACP to ask for a copy of the report and she was told that the ACP had not conducted a review of the Buglife report and that only the CRD had conducted the review. That same person then asked the CRD for a copy of the review and she was told that it was not quite finished, as the directorate still needed to look at some data. Even though the review was clearly not completed, Lord Henley felt able to tell Buglife that its report had highlighted a need in the risk assessment process for data on the impact of these pesticides on over-wintering bees and that the matter was being addressed. That was clearly a welcome step. However, he did not respond to the main thrust of that report on environmental damage, nor did he answer the main recommendations that I have just outlined. Buglife and the Soil Association have asked the Minister to supply a copy of the full report from the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, but that could be difficult because the report simply does not exist.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting case. Given that the problems of colony collapse and bee decline did not happen at the last general election and that the previous Government agreed welcome investment that went into research into the causes of colony collapse, has his research identified any evidence provided by DEFRA through the work that it has undertaken in examining the causes of colony collapse in the UK?
Martin Caton: Most of the research that I have looked at for this debate has been new research done by academic institutions that leads to further worries about the use of this particular group of systemics. I will come on to that in a moment. Without a completed review of the report, DEFRA decided not to accept Buglife’s interpretation of the current science and continues to maintain that “We have a robust system for assessing risks from pesticides in the UK” that is based on evidence. DEFRA goes on to state:“current evidence shows that…there is not an unacceptable risk to bee health” from these products. That statement was made as recently as last month. But how robust is a risk assessment regime that takes 16 months to deal with a report? That worries me because things have moved on considerably since the production of the Buglife report. Further scientific evidence has been produced over the past 15 months that strengthens the case. Four significant pieces of published research have emerged during that time. The first is a paper in Ecotoxicology by Nils Dittbrenner. It demonstrates a damaging impact on earthworm growth and activity at field level use of Imidacloprid. Secondly, work by the toxicologist, Dr Henk Tennekes, shows that low-level exposure to neonicotinoids by arthropods over a long time is likely to be as damaging as high exposure over a short time and hence more harmful than had been thought. Thirdly, work done by James Cresswell of Exeter university published in Ecotoxicology makes the case, from various pieces of lab work done by others, that a 6% to 20% reduction in honey bee performance is associated with the use of neonicotinoids. However, none of the field studies used to assess the impact of systemic pesticides would be able to detect a change in performance at that level. Fourthly, a paper by Cedric Alaux of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research published in Environmental Microbiology demonstrates a clear link between neonicotinoid exposure and increased susceptibility to fatal nosema infections that could threaten pollinators. In addition, there is unpublished work that adds to the picture. One piece of work from the Netherlands shows widespread contamination of water bodies in that country and raises concerns about the impacts on the health of freshwater invertebrate populations. The other, from the USA, was the subject of the lead story in The Independent last Thursday under the headline, “Poisoned Spring”. In an exclusive, Michael McCarthy, the environment editor of The Independent, revealed work from the US Department of Agriculture’s bee research lab, showing that neonicotinoid pesticides make honey bees far more susceptible to disease-even at tiny doses. Therefore, they have to be in the frame when we consider the causes of the colony collapse disorder that is having a devastating effect on bees around the world.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Everyone in this Chamber, I think, agrees that bee health is a very important issue for the whole environment and for the environmental cycle. He has mentioned a number of factors that affect bee health and he has talked about pests and diseases. Does he not think that we should look at bee health as an overall issue and the impacts that are riding on that, rather than just focus on specific issues?
Martin Caton: That is exactly my case. The evidence against the neonicotinoids now is that they make bees and other pollinating insects more susceptible to diseases, so it is not just one factor. We cannot rule out the effect of these systemic pesticides. That is the mistake that has been made so far.Dr Jeffrey Pettis and his team at the US Department found that increased disease infection happened even when the levels of the insecticides were so tiny that they could not subsequently be detected in the bees, although the researchers knew that they had been dosed with it. Those findings are completely in line with some of the other research that I have already mentioned. That research evidence from the other side of the Atlantic follows hard on the heels of the “leaked memo” from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is about a newer neonicotinoid called Clothianidin. It is highly critical of the risk assessment process used in the US. It states: “Information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoid insecticides, suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.” Alarm bells should be ringing by now. Neonicotinoids are a group of relatively new compounds that mimic the insect-killing properties of nicotine. They are neurotoxins, attacking the central nervous system of the invertebrates. They are systemic, which means that they get taken into every part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar. In turn, that means that bees and other pollinating insects can absorb them and carry them back to their nests or hives. In 2008, total neonicotinoid use in Britain involved more than 2.5 million acres-some quarter of the arable cropland in this country-and they are big earners for the chemical companies that produce them. According to the article in The Independent, the German company Bayer earned more than £500 million from the sale of its top-selling insecticide, Imidacloprid, in 2009, which fits in with the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). As she said, there is no independent monitoring of the process of gathering and assessing results by the manufacturer. When that is the foundation of the approval system, is it any surprise that we find disparities between the findings of subsequent independent research on this systemic pesticide and the research in its own 2005 draft assessment report? We need to look again at the approval mechanism for crop protection. In doing so, we should be employing the precautionary principle.
Caroline Lucas: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that DEFRA seems over-complacent about the issue of the ill health of bees? In 2005, I asked the European Commission to comment on cuts that were being made that would halve the number of seasonal bee inspectors. Given that it has been estimated that beekeeping contributes £165 million a year to the UK economy in direct costs and unquantifiable value to the health of our ecological systems, one would have thought that keeping a high number of seasonable bee inspectors would have been a good precautionary measure.
Martin Caton: I would not disagree with that. That leads me on to my next point. We are not just talking about honey bees. I am sure that all our hearts go out to beekeepers in these very difficult times, but only 8% of insect pollination is from honey bees; other pollinators contribute enormously to our food security and to the quality of our ecosystem. As I have given way so many times, I will not be able quite to complete my speech, but I would like to make some points for the Minister to respond to. If he cannot do what I would really like him to do, which is to suspend the use of all new neonicotinoids from tomorrow, I request that he commit today, or in writing as soon as he can, to reviewing the new research that I have referred to, and to reconsidering the licences that have been granted. I request that he withdraw the licences that allow neonicotinoids to be used on plants that produce nectar and pollen until the evidence is clear that they have no impact on the environment, and that he establish a national monitoring system for pollinators and pollinating rates. I ask him to produce a formal response to the scientific papers to which I have just drawn attention, stating what concentrations of neonicotinoids are found in UK water bodies and whether the levels are routinely monitored. I also request that he ask the Environment Agency to work with other agencies to undertake a review of those levels, commissioning research that would be scientifically robust enough to clarify any link between the pesticides and UK populations of wild pollinators. A Government who aim to be the greenest ever cannot ignore a hugely significant threat to arguably the most important tier of animal life on this planet. They need to act; now is the time to wake up and smell the coffee.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) on securing the debate. I say that seriously, despite the fact that I am in the position of having to reply. None of us, as MPs, is unaware of the widespread concern, which has existed for a number of years, about our bee population. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, colony collapse disorder is not something new. Soon after the Labour Government were elected in 1997, I took part, in my earlier incarnation as Opposition spokesman challenging the Government, in a debate about bee health, on the specific issue of varroa. Unfortunately, the Government took no notice at all, and the varroa mite is now widespread-some would argue endemic-with the real long-term impact unknown. The issue to which the hon. Gentleman has specifically drawn our attention-neonicotinoids-has recently returned to the headlines, and he is absolutely right to raise it. I certainly do not want to portray any suggestion of complacency on the matter. I will not go over the points, which we all fully understand, about the importance of honey bees and other non-vertebrate pollinators to our agricultural crop and horticultural industries. We must not be complacent; we must take things very seriously. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was running short of time, but he concluded his speech by rushing off a long list of questions, which I am afraid I did not have time to write down. I will happily undertake to respond to them when I read them in Hansard, but forgive me if I do not reply to them all now. One thing that is probably blatantly obvious, but which underlines all this, is that all pesticides are toxic. Even the naturally occurring ones that are approved in organic farming are toxic at some level. The question is about the level of usage, the accumulation and the other factors that determine whether that toxicity is a threat. Of course we accept that neonicotinoids, as much as any other pesticide, are toxic at certain levels and in certain doses.
Martin Caton: The fundamental point is that we have very strong evidence that even in tiny doses those particular systemic pesticides contribute to the demise of invertebrate populations. That has to be of great concern, and it often cannot be picked up in field trials, on which, understandably, most of our assessment is based.
Mr Paice: I have taken the hon. Gentleman’s point on board. I understand it and will try to deal with it as best I can, because I certainly do not want in any way to imply that I am ignoring it or, to use his words, that the Government are being complacent about it. As he and others have said, the Government take pesticide regulation very seriously. All pesticides are rigorously assessed before they are approved for use, although I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that much of that information comes from the industry that developed them. However, the matter is open to public scrutiny after that by the advisory committee and the regulators, so if there were any implication that somehow those trial results were distorted intentionally, it would quickly come to light. The conditions of use of a pesticide are set so that pesticides do not pose an unacceptable risk to people or to the wildlife in the countryside, which, of course, includes bees and other pollinators. I emphasise that there is a statutory code of practice about guidance to people who use pesticides on minimising the exposure of bees, including notifying local beekeepers 48 hours before their use. We continue to fund research on pesticides and pollinators and in relation to monitoring the real-world impact of pesticides on bees. It is being considered as part of the wildlife incident investigation scheme, and we are adding those neonicotinoids that are not already covered to the programme of residues monitoring for honey.The hon. Gentleman has rightly and understandably referred to the 2009 Buglife report. As he has said, Buglife basically took all the information that was available and reviewed it before publishing the report. The then Government fully reviewed that report and took advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides, and all the key research references were scrutinised and the implications considered. That involved drawing on the regulatory data set and any other publicly available information. The conclusion drawn at that time was that the Buglife report did not raise new issues-it would have been surprising if it had, given that it was simply going over all the information already held-and that it did not require changes to pesticide approvals.
Martin Caton: Is the Minister not concerned that we have discovered this month that the chemicals regulation directorate of the Health and Safety Executive, which was given the job, on behalf of the Government, of assessing the Buglife report, has still not completed its report and has not even completed collating the data? If we are really serious about dealing with this problem urgently, that is an appalling record. I do not blame the current Government alone-it is a failure of government.
Mr Paice: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the detail. His assertion is news to me, and I shall have to take it away with me. As he obviously appreciates, this is not my normal portfolio; I am covering for my noble Friend Lord Henley, who normally deals with bees.What the Buglife report did do-there is no question about this-was indicate a gap in our knowledge on the effects of neonicotinoids on over-wintering bees. The point about that was right. We have supported the addition of studies on that issue to the European data requirements for pesticide regulation. We continue to work with other regulators and to consider all the new evidence that emerges. We have discussed with James Cresswell of Exeter university his work on sub-lethal pesticide doses and bees, especially in relation to over-wintering. That is of interest, but as he himself fully acknowledges, questions remain about the environmental relevance of predominantly laboratory-based results. That is particularly relevant to the work to which the hon. Gentleman has referred by Henk Tennekes. We are also, of course, aware of the work by Jeff Pettis in the United States, which is the origin of the article in The Independent to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. However, we have to recognise that Dr Pettis himself has challenged The Independent publicly about some of the assertions that it made. He has published the points on a website on that newspaper’s own blog. Forgive me, Mr Williams, but I think that I need to read out some aspects of that. Dr Pettis has stated: “I noticed in your article that there is an implication that my research findings are perhaps being suppressed by the chemical industry. As the author of this study, I can tell you that the truth is that the review process on the paper has simply been lengthy, as is often the case, due to various factors, but that no outside forces are attempting to suppress this scientific information. The findings of an interaction between low level pesticide exposure and an increase in the gut pathogen Nosema were not unexpected; many such interactions are likely within the complex life of a honey bee colony. It is not possible to make a direct comparison with a lab study and what might occur in the field. Lab studies can give us insights into what may be occurring with beehives but we have yet to make this link. Honey bee health is complex and our findings support this. They do not provide a direct link to CCD colony losses but these results do provide leads for further study.” I say that not to reject what has been claimed, but to put it into proportion. Even the work’s author rejects some aspects of the article that has caused so much understandable public concern recently. The author has repeatedly said that finding such an interaction does not tell us what might happen in the field. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Gower has rightly said, it causes us to think about what further work needs to be done. The European Commission is developing proposals for bee health, including research, surveillance and measures to understand and tackle the decline of wild and managed bees. Only yesterday, we discussed the issue at the Agriculture Council in Brussels, where I publicly supported the need to develop such measures. In particular, I raised the issue of neonicotinoids, which must be researched on a European basis. As several hon. Members have said, the situation is not unique to this country and applies elsewhere in Europe. In that respect, I need to correct the assertion made by several hon. Members that those products have been banned by some of the countries that have been mentioned. Germany, France, Slovenia and Italy have introduced various restrictions, but none has totally banned the use of those products. We will work with Europe heavily on this issue. The insect pollinators initiative will provide £10 million-that was decided by the previous Government-to look at the decline of pollinators. DEFRA is contributing £2.5 million to that work, which will include a project run by Dundee university to look at the effect of sub-lethal pesticide exposure on the brain and behaviour of bees during navigation and communication. DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly launched the healthy bees plan in 2009 to protect and improve the health of honey bees over the next 10 years. As part of that, DEFRA recently announced funding to train beekeepers to protect colonies against pests and diseases. The National Bee Unit, which is part of our Food and Environment Research Agency, has also announced scientific research in conjunction with Aberdeen university on varroa. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, because it is important that we have had this opportunity to debate the issue. The fact that so many of my colleagues from all parts of the House have been present for a half-hour Adjournment debate underlines the fact that this is a matter of interest across the House. I will undertake to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised in his concluding remarks. I must stress that we are certainly not complacent, and I would be very angry if there were any implication that we were. From my perspective as the Minister with responsibility for agriculture, I fully recognise the importance of bees to food production in this country. The last thing that I want to do is to jeopardise the role of bees in any way. I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and am grateful to him for raising this issue. I hope that I have been able to give him some comfort that we are taking the issue seriously and that a number of actions are in play. Clearly, however, we still need a lot more information.
Question put and agreed to.
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