Many of us who care for the natural world were deeply concerned when Michael Gove became environment secretary in June. Few in the teaching profession have anything positive to say about his time as education secretary, while many feared he saw the post merely as a stepping stone to revive his career – rather than an opportunity to pursue a great personal passion for the environment.
But, after six months in the job, there are encouraging signs that those grave misgivings may have been misplaced.
Already there has been positive action such as consultations on extra charges for single-use plastics or banning the ivory trade, as well as strongly worded warning over the loss of soil fertility – a subject almost never addressed in political circles. Gove has also just announced that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty would be raised to five years in jail.
The Conservatives seem desperate to convince us of their new green credentials – within minutes of the end of the last episode on “Blue Planet II” on Sunday, Tory MPs bombarded Twitter with what were clearly pre-prepared graphics highlighting new initiatives to protect the marine environment.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Gove announced in November that the government would be “supporting further restrictions on neonicotinoids”, a group of pesticides linked to declining bee populations. This massively increases the possibility of a ban being voted through by the European Commission.
This is a remarkable U-turn. In 2013 Gove’s predecessor three-times-removed, Owen Paterson, unsuccessfully argued against a proposed EU ban on the use of the pesticides on flowering crops. This year the government had been trying to stymie EU moves to extend bans to non-flowering crops, so Gove’s announcement was certainly unexpected.
Evidence of neonicotinoids’ persistence in the environment, accumulation in soils, and frequent detection in hedgerow flowers, ponds and rivers has been stacking up. A recent study found neonicotinoids in three-quarters of honey samples from around the world. These highly potent neurotoxins are linked to declines of wild bees, butterflies, aquatic insects and insect-eating birds – so the fact they are becoming almost ubiquitous is deeply worrying for all of us.
As Gove himself wrote: “the evidence points in one direction – we must ban neonicotinoids”. While many of us were frustrated that it took so long for the UK government to grasp this point, we should give credit for the welcome change in position. Gove has looked at the scientific evidence, taken appropriate advice – and drawn sensible conclusions. Hallelujah.
What is more, in the same neonicotinoids article he wrote:
We must ensure that we think about the long term health of our environment, because unless we take steps now to arrest environmental damage we will all be the losers. We only have one earth and it is our responsibility to hand it on to the next generation in a better state.
I could not put this any better. It is wonderfully refreshing to hear a long-term approach espoused by a senior politician.
However, though a neonicotinoid ban would be a great start, it will not in itself solve the bigger problems. Despite Gove’s noble intention, there is no chance of handing over the Earth to the next generation in a better state than it is now.
This is no excuse not to act of course – as anything we achieve now will make the situation less bad in the future. New evidence highlights that there is no time to lose. I recently played a role in a study which found the weight of flying insects at nature reserve sites across Germany fell by 76% between 1989 and 2014. If there were to be an insect Armageddon, life on Earth would collapse, and the German data suggests we are losing these creatures very rapidly.
Our modern, intensive approach to farming, where vast monocultures are drenched in synthetic fertilisers and up to 20 pesticides, has rendered large tracts of the countryside inhospitable to most forms of life, degrading soils and polluting rivers. Neonicotinoids are just one group of chemicals – and no doubt they will be replaced by others which, history tells us, are likely to be just as harmful.
Industrial-scale farming is promoted by a £3 billion subsidy system that gives the most taxpayers’ money to the largest farmers. Whatever your view on Brexit, it frees us from the Common Agricultural Policy and provides a golden opportunity to turn the subsidy system on its head.
We should remove support for the most harmful forms of farming and instead focus on smaller-scale operations producing healthy food for local consumption, look after the soil and wildlife, capture carbon and ideally use no pesticides. Gove has already signalled the area-based payments that favour the biggest farms are likely to go. The big question is what will replace them.
Gove has a chance, assuming that he remains in post through the ongoing political instability, to start a truly green revolution. If he continues to look at the science, and to think long term, there may be a glimmer of hope.
Dave Goulson has received funding from BBSRC, NERC, Leverhulme Trust, the Royal Society, Soil Association and Greenpeace.