A few weeks after officially ending their transitionary period in their secession from the European Union, The United Kingdom finds itself in a stage of deciding which EU rules and regulations they wish to either maintain or overturn. One of the most recent, and possibly the most environmentally damaging, is the reintroduction of the crop pesticides known as neonicotinoids, a type of deadly insecticide which contributed to the dropping population of Europe’s bees and other pollinators at an alarming rate.

Global Green News conducted an interview with Baroness Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, and current member of the House of Lords, to discuss the issues these pesticides present, and how to combat them.

Natalie Bennett led the GPEW from 2012-2016

Neonicotinoids: Their use in the UK

The neonicotinoid pesticides are a type of neuro-active insecticides whose use on crops has been widely linked to declining bee populations, contributing to death and severe neurological damage in the insects.

In 2013, the European Union restricted the use of neonicotinoids on crops, and by 2018 the EU had banned three main strands of the pesticide; clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam.

At that time, the United Kingdom, then an EU Member State, recognised the ban.  Previous Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Michael Gove and Theresa Villiers, publicly stated their support for this decision, expressing the need to protect and sustain healthy bee populations in the UK.

However, as of January 1st 2021, the Brexit transition period has officially come to a close, meaning the UK now finds itself in a state of determining which EU laws and regulations they wish to maintain, and which to remove.

A surge in “beet yellow virus” over the past year severely hindered the production of the UK’s sugar beet farmers. The subsequent pressure applied to the government from the National Farmers Union led current DEFRA Secretary, George Eustice, to allow the use of the deadly neonicotinoid pesticide on sugar beet crops to avoid a similar surge in diseased crops.

Neonicotinoids: Environmental Effects

The reintroduction of neonicotinoids on crops poses a myriad of risks to the overall environment. The pesticide does not immediately kill the bees once consumed, however the neurological damage is lasting, which ultimately leads to the demise of the insect. 

Natalie Bennett stated, “Neonicotinoids are doing huge damage to bees and other pollinators…There was some interesting research, showing one of the ways they do damage: they disrupt the sleep patterns of bees.”

By disrupting their sleep patterns, bees have been found to lose their memory capacity, as well as their understanding of when and where to find food, and when to rest.

Dr. Kiah Tasman of the University of Bristol’s School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, said of a study conducted, “If an insect was exposed to a similar amount as it might experience on a farm where the pesticide had been applied, it slept less, and its daily behavioural rhythms were knocked out of sync with the normal 24-hour cycle of day and night.”

Bennett went on to say, “What we’ve been doing is essentially destroying those systems with neonicotinoids…we need an agroecological permaculture-type approach, that works with nature instead of trying to quash it over the head.”

When asked about DEFRA stating that as the sugar beet is a non-flowering crop, the damage posed to bees and pollinators would be minimal, Bennett responded that “This is scientific nonsense of a kind that we’ve come to expect from our government…every bit of new evidence that we get on noenicitinoids shows how much damage they’re doing.”

Bee populations worldwide are currently experiencing a crisis, as warming temperatures and increased use of pesticide over the past decades has led to a significant drop in their populations. Healthy bee and pollinator populations are necessary to maintain the global environment, with 75% of the world’s crops relying on pollination from these insects.

However, the effects of these pesticides do not end with insect populations. Being at the bottom of the food chain, these insects are relied upon heavily by various species of animals. Bennett stated that the impact on the insects will result in “huge impacts on fish life, and huge impacts on bird life.

The Need for an Agricultural Restructure

Bennett states that there has been increasing talks, and understanding of the need to restructure the food system in the UK. 

There are currently pockets of land across the country, where farmers have been able to take more agroecological approaches to their production systems. These approaches include growing a diversity of crops, using soils that are tailored to the needs of each species of plant, and ending the monocultural model of growing one crop over the vast expanse of the land, which leaves the whole yield more vulnerable to diseases.

Wakelyns Organic Farm (pictured) in Suffolk, UK, Bennett says, “Produces a high diversity of crops and is brillaint for wildlife.” Image via @wakelyns

Unfortunately, says Bennett, this form of agriculture is not as common as it should be due to exterior motives. 

Bennett made it clear that the individual farmers are not to blame: “We know that we have an agricultural food system that puts huge pressure on farmers due to the costs of the land, due to people having short leases that limit how much they can invest in and experiment, and they’ve got supermarkets and multinational companies that are not paying them an adequate price for their crops.”

“LOTS OF FARMERS WANT TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY, BUT THEY’RE NOT IN AN ECONOMIC SYSTEM THAT LETS THEM ”

Baroness Natalie Bennett of Manor Castle, Member of the House of Lords, Green Party of England and Wales

There appears to be increasing hope for this idea of agricultural restructure in the UK, and it is evident through an annual farming conference that takes place in Oxford, each January. 

Bennett explains, “Every January, in Oxford, there are two farming conferences. One is called the Oxford Farming Conference, which is the traditional, National Farmers Union, [the] mainstream one…and there is the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which is basically our people; the people doing agroecology, the people really worrying about their soils.”

Image via @oxfordrealfarmingconf

“What’s really interesting is that more and more people have come from the mainstream one, and have learned things from the ‘alternative’ one. You can now hear mainstream farmers talking about the need to protect the natural systems in their soils. There’s a huge shift that’s happening.”

Besides farmers, Bennett believes that the public has turned more and more towards environmental protection, as is evidenced by a petition circulating online with nearly 250,000 signatures, calling for the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Moving forward, the Green Party of England and Wales will continue working on educating people on the damages of these pesticides, as well as the advantages of a more permaculture-type approach to farming.

Bennett finishes by saying, “Our job is to show that things can and must be done differently, and to show that it’s one of those things that will change peoples’ lives.”

Joshua Allan

Joshua Allan is from Beamsville, Ontario and graduated from Bishop's University in June 2020, having studied Foreign Languages and Politics. His political activity in his community includes advocating for environmental rights in the Fridays for Future march in Sherbrooke, QC, in October 2019. His interests include Canadian and international politics, environmental politics, and Indigenous rights.

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