CONTINUED production of many UK crops will be put at risk if neonicotinoid pesticides are further restricted or banned completely, crop scientists have warned.

In a position statement issued this week, titled "Bees and neonicotinoids: seeking an alternative to the pesticide ban", scientists at the world’s longest-running agricultural research institute, Rothamsted Research, bemoaned the lack of hard evidence to support the current restrictions on the chemicals.

Neonicotinoids were originally developed to be less dangerous to wildlife and damaging to the environment than their predecessors, but have since fallen foul of suspicions that they are having a more subtle disruptive effect on bee populations – a possibility that has prompted European Union legislators to take precautionary steps to restrict their use.

This week, Rothamsted's statement said the debate over neonicotinoids had been dominated by ‘vested interests’ instead of impartial science, causing more harm than good.

“It is vital that research is done to study crop protection in its broadest sense, combining conventional chemical control with better surveillance of pests, weeds and diseases, understanding and mitigating for pesticide resistance and developing next generation crop protection.

“Furthermore, if groups of chemistries are limited by legislation, the remaining groups will be more widely used, resulting in an increased risk of pests developing resistance to them,” it noted.

The institute’s decision to go public followed the release of draft proposals by the EU, suggesting that it might replace the current temporary restriction on the use of three neonicotinoids on flowering crops, introduced in 2013, with a widespread ban across Europe.

In the UK, this “restricted use” has mainly affected oilseed rape crops. According to an assessment by the European Crop Protection Association – which represents pesticide manufacturers – the neonicotinoid ban as it currently stands costs the European oilseed sector €900 million a year, including a yield loss of 4%, which translates to 912,000 tons of oilseed.

Further afield, the chemical is also vital to sugar beet growers, to control aphids and the virus diseases they spread, not least because the aphids are already resistant to other control chemistries.

“It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain production of many crops if neonicotinoids are more widely restricted or banned completely,” stressed the Rothamsted team.

However, the farmer levy-funded Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has already opened the book on what the UK's exit from the European Union might mean for the current pesticide regulations. “Since a policy needs to be in place at the point of exit, it would appear likely that the vast majority of PPP regulations will be ‘lifted and shifted’ as part of ‘The Great Repeal Bill’," mused AHDB in its recent Horizon document. "However, following this, change is possible, and the industry needs to think ahead regarding what it wants and needs to compete effectively in a changing global trading environment, as well as satisfying consumer preferences in a domestic market.”