The Observer view on the UK’s toxic stance on sugar farming

<span>Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

Near the end of 2022, the secretary of state for the environment, Thérèse Coffey, committed the UK to halving the impact of damaging pesticides on the nation’s wildlife and flora by the year 2030. It is a laudable aspiration. Biodiversity in Britain, as across the planet, is in peril as the climate heats up, pollution causes increasing harm to the landscape and alien species spread over the countryside. Considerable care will be needed if we are to protect nature, which is vital to our health, wellbeing and survival, from continued degradation. Limiting the ecological injury of pesticides is an encouraging move.

Unfortunately, Coffey’s words have not been matched by action. Incredibly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has decided to waive restrictions on the use of a class of highly dangerous powerful toxins and permit their release on crops. Neonicotinoids have been described as the Novichok of bees: a single teaspoon is sufficient to kill more than a billion, say scientists.

The EU has made it plain that, because of their alarming toxicity, neonics have no role to play in modern agriculture

For this reason, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides last week argued that requests for these toxins to be used to protect sugar beet crops against attack from aphids should be turned down. For the third year in a row, this advice was promptly rejected and their dispersal was given the go-ahead by Defra. Such sidestepping of expert advice contrasts starkly with the European Union, which has made it plain that, because of their alarming toxicity, neonics, as these chemicals are also known, have no role to play in modern agriculture. The EU has refused all requests to allow them to be sprayed on crops in Europe.

The UK government’s contrarian insistence on using neonics has appalled many scientists and green activists. By using a class of chemical capable of such pernicious impacts merely to protect sugar from aphid-borne disease, the government is endangering a host of other insect species, including bees and other pollinators that are crucial to the flourishing of our crops and flowers.

Neonics build up in the soil, accumulate in the roots of wildflowers and collect in streams and ponds.

The dangers posed by such poison reservoirs are considerable. Yet they are being taken merely to protect sugar beet supplies in the UK. And it does not inspire confidence in the government’s claims to have genuine green credentials when the authorisation process is shrouded in secrecy, with no hint being given for the reasons for approving these powerful toxins. A better solution, proposed by many scientists, would be to diversify and grow other, more nutritious crops that do not bolster the nation’s swelling obesity problems.

At Cop15, the UN biodiversity talks in Montreal in December, the UK government called for global ambition in dealing with pesticides. Last week’s decision on neonicotinoids has fallen disastrously short of its own proclamations and once again underline the gulf that lies between the green pronouncements of the current Conservative administration and the actions that it actually takes to deal with the environmental crisis that threatens to overwhelm us.

This last point is crucial and should be carefully borne in mind when considering other recent government environmental pronouncements. One of the most important of these was the announcement, made this month by Coffey, of subsidy schemes that will reward farmers in England for a range of environmentally friendly actions and boosting the ecological strength of their land. These are admirable aspirations. We can only hope that these pledges have a longer shelf life than the ones about pesticides the environment secretary made last year.