28 April 2013
A new compromise plan by Scotland’s environment minister, Richard Lochhead, to agree - but not implement - a ban on the pesticides blamed for killing bees has been condemned as a “complete fudge” and a “spineless sell-out” that could help usher in “ecological Armageddon”.
Scientists, beekeepers, environmental groups, and politicians reacted angrily yesterday to a bid by the Cabinet Secretary for two years more research before deciding whether or not to restrict the use of nicotine-based nerve poisons used by farmers to kill insects and protect crops.
Lochhead has written to UK ministers urging them to accept proposed European restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, due to be discussed in Brussels tomorrow. But he said that the restrictions should only be implemented in 2015 if further evidence proves that bees are being harmed.
The pesticides have already been banned in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia, and by major retailers in the UK. The proposed European restrictions, which look likely to go ahead, have been backed by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
Lochhead, however, argued that the science was not clear-cut. “Given the lack of conclusive evidence I think it would be sensible to carry out a further programme of research over the next two years,” he said.
“A breathing space would allow any existing stocks to be used and also time to ensure that any alternatives on the market do not make matters worse.”
The Scottish government was suggesting a “precautionary approach” with an “exit strategy”, Lochhead stated. “I do not think that year after year of debate over what the science tells us will get us very far or help or bee populations or farmers.”
But according to Professor Dave Goulson, a leading expert on bees at University of Sussex, there was a large body of scientific evidence showing that neonicotinoids were likely to be harming bees. “It is time for UK politicians to take responsibility for making a decision, based on the very good evidence they have in front of them, not to play for time by saying that yet more evidence is needed,” he said.
“Richard Lochhead’s proposal for a ban that isn't implemented for two years is something only a politician would come up with. What possible use to bees is a ban that isn't a ban?”
Graham White from Friends of the Bees accused the minister of “not giving a damn” about the “ecological Armageddon” being caused by the extermination of bees, bumblebees, butterflies and birds. “Lochhead's spineless statement is an utter sell-out to the pesticide and agriculture lobbyists,” he said.
“It is a dogs-breakfast of disinformation, distraction and delaying tactics, designed to stall any meaningful action to save bees, and to keep the pesticide profits rolling in.”
"I'm failing to see the logic of this half-decision,” said Jonny Hughes, the trust’s director of conservation. “We have seen how the failure to act swiftly to ban dangerous pesticides can lead to untold damage, most famously with DDT, not banned until 1972, a full 10 years after the Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring, catalogued the many environmental and human health impacts of the chemical.”
Lochhead “has got the logic all wrong,” Hughes argued. “The rational option is to ban these pesticides until further research is completed, not to keep using them and risk discovering in two years time that the early evidence on their impacts was indeed correct.”
The Green MSP, Alison Johnson, dismissed Lochhead’s announcement as a “complete fudge” which failed to protect pollinators. "This is appalling hypocrisy from Scotland's environment minister," she said.
"The Scottish government is patronising us, trying to put a gloss on the fact it is gambling with our food supplies. Yet again we see SNP ministers care about big business more than the long-term health of our environment."
The National Farmers Union in Scotland, however, welcomed Lochhead’s move. “This is a hugely contentious and politicised subject where the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebees under field conditions has yet to be fully understood,” said a union spokesman.
“An approach that generates further impartial, high quality field-based research would be welcome and benefit the both poles in what is a very heated debate.”
The Scottish Nationalist MEP, Alyn Smith, also praised the Scottish government’s intervention. But he added: “No amount of corporate propaganda can disguise the fact that there is ample evidence that neonicotinoids have a case to answer and a ban should be implemented.”
The pesticide industry insisted that there was no evidence that a ban would lead to a “meaningful improvement” in bee health. “It would nevertheless have a significant impact on the ability of farmers and growers to produce safe and affordable food for UK consumers,” said Nick von Westenholz, the chief executive of the Crop Protection Association.
“I would urge those who have been calling for a ban on products such as these to take a step back and consider what measures are really needed to protect bee health, rather than simplistically blaming the nearest chemical.”