Food and farming minister Mark Spencer has authorised the use of a neonicotinoid to protect this year’s sugar beet crops against viruses.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, England’s largest environment and wildlife coalition, said: “This decision flies in the face of ecological sense. These pesticides are banned for a reason: they are a risk to our wildlife and to human health.
“Industry promised to find replacements, and government promised better environmental protections, but what we’re getting is delays and yet more broken promises that leave the UK increasingly falling behind on pesticide action.”
Neonicotinoids are so toxic that the UK and the EU banned them in 2018, but since then countries including the UK and France have granted exceptional permission for them to be used.
Government officials say they recently met members of the British sugar industry and environmental organisations during which the industry’s plan to move away from neonicotinoid use was discussed.
They say the pesticide – Cruiser SB, which contains thiamethoxam – will be used only if there is a threat to the crop, and that stringent controls are attached.
They point out that the threshold for neonicotinoid use has increased on previous years to its highest level ever - a risk of virus incidence of 65 per cent or more.
The Wildlife Trusts branded the decision “a death blow for wildlife, a backward step in evidence-based decision-making and a betrayal to farmers who try to produce food sustainably”.
Pesticide Action Network UK wrote on social media: “Shocking but not surprising – Defra supinely rolls over to meet the demands of the sugar industry and allow the use of bee toxic neonicotinoid once again! Sugar before bees and profits before people, as always.”
Mr Spencer said: “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.”
The official decision was announced on the day its own advisers warned that the government risks missing legally binding targets to halt nature decline by 2030.
In the first major review of the Environment Improvement Plan, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has concluded that government needs to speed up and scale up delivery.
It also warned that the plan lacked transparency and accountability.
Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the OEP, said: “Deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue. With the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads.”
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We were always clear that our targets are ambitious and would require significant work to achieve, but we are fully committed to creating a greener country for future generations and going further and faster to deliver for nature. We will carefully review the Office for Environmental Protection’s findings and respond in due course.”