Improving Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy

It’s been over a year since EU member states were embroiled in a row over the use of neonicotinoids and the risks these pose to bees and other pollinators. In short succession, bans on two categories of pesticide were imposed after reports from the European Food Safety Authority (EFRA) highlighted potential risks. An increased focus on pollinators led to Defra developing its own proposals for a National Pollinator Strategy in March this year. Although a welcome step in the right direction, the Environmental Audit Committee highlight a number of potential improvements in their latest report, released yesterday. Most notable is a change in attitude of the government.

The stance of the UK government during the voting rounds banning neonicotinoids in the EU last year was memorable – voting ‘no’ in the final round, despite a recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee to follow the precautionary principle and support a ban while the full effects of the pesticides were not clear. In response to the Committee’s 2013 Pollinators and Pesticides report, the government stated that both economic and environmental considerations were included in their assessment of risk, highlighting that a neonicotinoid ban could have an economic impact. The Committee disagree, and in their latest report, ask for the government to publish figures demonstrating economic costs/benefits for various approaches to neonicotinoids.

In their response to the Committee’s earlier report, the government committed to assessing the available evidence on pollinator declines. This review formed the basis of the National Pollinator Strategy, which aims to safeguard the health of England’s pollinators. Within the strategy, steps to set up a monitoring framework for pollinators are welcomed by the Committee. Less welcome are voluntary approaches towards schemes, and a reliance on industry for funding.

Although the majority of research outlined in the strategy will be delivered by Defra, several projects will be entirely funded by pesticide manufacturers. The Committee echo the concern of many witnesses at their inquiry – that the results of these commercially funded studies may appear biased. The Committee also comment that Defra’s reliance on industry funding ‘is symptomatic of a loss of Defra’s capacity to deliver its environmental protection obligations’. To guard against bias, the Committee urges that Defra must ensure independent controls remain in place, and the completed results are peer-reviewed and published in full.

Indications that the funded research will be published have already been made, and the department will want to avoid a repeat of last year. Insisting the EFRA risk assessments did not show that neonicotinoids are linked to a decline in bee populations, the department commissioned their own research at FERA. The final report concluded there was no link between bee health and exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides, but was not peer-reviewed and the design of the experiment was criticised by many researchers.

It’s clear the Committee feel that Defra could have managed the neonicotinoid discussions in 2013 much better, and recommend a new approach to the management of pesticide use in the UK. They urge:

Defra should also use the final [National Pollinator] Strategy to draw a line under the neonicotinoid ban by making it clear that the UK accepts the European risk assessments underpinning the ban, that it supports the ban and will not seek to end it when a European review is possible in 2015, or otherwise to circumvent it.

Overall, the EAC’s report provides a collection of very strong recommendations for the department to work on. In addition to this report, Defra are currently assessing the responses to the National Pollinator Strategy consultation and a final version is due to be published in the autumn.