A powerful coalition of environmental groups is urging the Scottish environment secretary, Richard Lochhead, to support a move by the European Commission to restrict the use of nicotine-based nerve agents designed to kill insects that prevent crops from growing.
Their campaign has been backed by the Scottish National Party MEP, Alyn Smith, who is calling on his party colleagues at Holyrood to change their minds. To use incomplete science as an excuse for delaying a ban is a “shoddy lobbying tactic”, he said.
So far Lochhead has steadfastly supported the UK government’s rejection of a ban, stressing that there are “gaps” in the science and concerns for farmers. But the Sunday Herald understands that some of his senior officials now regard restrictions as inevitable.
Environmentalists point to more than 30 scientific studies suggesting that the pesticides are harming bees and other wildlife, including some from Scottish universities. Bees and other pollinating insects like bumblebees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies are vital to the production of food, and are reckoned to be worth £43 million a year to the Scottish economy.
Chemicals called neonicotinoids are made by multi-national pesticide companies to paralyse insects by attacking their nervous systems. With sales of over £1 billion a year they are the world’s most widely used insecticide, and are applied to 10 per cent of Scotland’s crop-growing land, mostly to protect oil seed rape.
Now a group of five environmental groups, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), have written to Lochhead asking him to back the proposed European ban. It is due to be voted on by member states in Brussels in two weeks time, and the pesticides have already been taken off the shelves by eight leading retailers in the UK, including B&Q and Homebase.
Simon Milne, the SWT’s chief executive, said it was “ridiculous” that Scotland and the UK were still saying that the chemicals were safe. “What the government and industry should be doing is helping farmers move away from neonicotinoids to a more sustainable means of pest control which is also beneficial to wildlife,” he argued.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has recently come out in favour of a ban, warned that the damage being done to pollinators was now apparent. “Scotland, with its varied habitats, is home to many bee species which are now scarce and declining across the UK,” said RSPB Scotland’s director, Stuart Housden.
“The Scottish government has a key role to play, not least in offering its full support for the European Commission’s proposed recommendations restricting the use of neonicotinoids.”
The other groups backing the ban are Buglife, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and Friends of the Earth Scotland. They have also found an ally in the SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who supports the commission’s proposal.
“I have no doubt that the Scottish government will be more interested in putting the health of bees and our Scottish environment first rather than allow the UK to decide for us,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Some of the evidence was conflicting and incomplete but there was a clear case to answer, he said. “To use the incomplete science as grounds for delay is just a shoddy lobbying tactic, and we owe it to Scotland's bees, and indeed ourselves, to act now.”
The proposed ban, however, was fiercely criticised by the Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide companies. It was “a disproportionate and alarmingly simplistic reaction to a complex problem,” said the association’s chief executive, Nick von Westenholz.
“The reasons that there are declines in some pollinator populations, for instance bees, are complicated and not well understood, and include factors such as habitat loss, viruses and parasites.
He argued that pesticides were “vital tools” for farmers and removing them could have “serious consequences” for their businesses and for consumer access to safe and affordable food. “This is something that those calling for a ban seem not to recognize,” he added.
The Scottish government said its position was informed by scientific advisers. They had highlighted “concerns and gaps in the knowledge,” said a government spokesman.
“It is important to consider the potential risks to bees from neonicotinoids under field conditions. We have asked the Advisory Committee on Pesticides for further urgent advice to help inform the Scottish government’s view on next steps.”