DEFRA has approved an emergency application for English sugar beet growers to use a neonicotinoid seed treatment against virus yellows.

Neonicotinoids were banned across the European Union in 2019 – which at that time included the UK – as concerns grew over their effects on bee populations.

While manufacturers cited research that the chemicals do not actually kill pollinators, other studies suggested that neonicotinoids have a negative effect on bee behaviour, such that colonies fail in the long term because their normal food gathering and breeding activities are disrupted. In the end, the EU decided to err on the side of caution and remove its authorisation for the outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam.

Defra was at pains to portray the UK's partial reversal of that ban on thiamethoxam as a temporary, targeted measure in response to a specific disease threat – but for the environmental and conservation lobby, already watching closely for any sign of the UK breaking with the EU's high standards, it was a red flag, and social media was quickly aflame with opposition to the move.

In its statement, Defra said it had 'carefully considered all the issues' before freeing growers to use Syngenta's Cruiser SB seed treatment.

“This is in recognition of the potential danger posed to the 2021 crop from beet yellows virus," said Defra. "Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and the risks to bees from the sugar beet crop itself were assessed to be acceptable.”

English NFU sugar board chairman Michael Sly said: “I am relieved that our application for emergency use of a neonicotinoid seed treatment for the 2021 sugar beet crop has been granted.

“Any treatment will be used in a limited and controlled way on sugar beet, a non-flowering crop, and only when the scientific threshold has been independently judged to have been met.”

Mr Sly stressed that virus yellows had devastated recent crops: “This authorisation is desperately needed to fight this disease. It will be crucial in ensuring that Britain’s sugar beet growers continue to have viable farm businesses.”

British Sugar agriculture director Peter Watson added: “The situation faced by growers has been unprecedented and this application was a last resort. While there will be restrictions for the following crop, the treatment will be able to be used in a limited and controlled way when high aphid conditions are expected. We are continuing our work as an industry to tackle virus yellows in the medium and long term, including through seed breeding programmes.”

Agricultural Industries Confederation head of agronomy, Hazel Doonan, commented: “The decision taken by Minister Eustice to issue an emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB in sugar beet crops in England in 2021 was reached based on the advice of the Health and Safety Executive, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, and Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser. They considered that the strict conditions for use that the emergency authorisation requires, has minimised the threat to bees and the environment, and the risk was therefore acceptable.

“Since the restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments for aphid control in beet crops in 2018, many EU member states have had no other option than to seek emergency authorisations for use of these seed treatments until alternative cost-effective solutions can be developed," noted Ms Doonan.

"Last season, despite the use of integrated pest management measures, some farmers had significant losses in their sugar beet crops due to virus yellows. The mild winter of 2019 and the warm spring in 2020 was ideal for the carry over and movement of aphids carrying the virus to beet crops.

“The emergency authorisation will enable farmers and agronomists to manage virus yellows more effectively in high-risk sugar beet crops in England until solutions for the control of virus yellows in all beet crops across the UK is found."

However, on social media, the Wildlife Trusts declared: “Bad news for bees. The Government has bowed to pressure from the National Farmers Union to agree the use of a highly damaging pesticide.

“The government know the clear harm that neonicotinoid pesticides cause to bees and other pollinators and just three years ago supported restrictions on them across the European Union. Insects perform vital roles such as pollination of crops and wildflowers, and nutrient recycling, but so many have suffered drastic declines.”

In detail, the authorisation is for the use of Syngenta’s Cruiser SB on sugar beet only and covers use in 2021 in England only. Conditions are attached to the emergency authorisation to ensure that, if the threshold for virus levels is reached and it becomes necessary to treat seeds, use of the product will be limited and controlled and any potential risks to pollinators will be mitigated to an acceptable level. In particular, the application rate of the product will be below the normal commercial rate; no flowering crop is to be planted within 22 months of the sugar beet crop, and no oilseed rape crop is to be planted within 32 months. Industry-recommended herbicide programmes will be followed to limit flowering weeds in and around sugar beet crops. The applicant will be required to limit the sowing rate of treated seeds to achieve no greater than the normal commercial plant population, and to develop and implement their proposed programme to monitor soils and plants following use of the treated seed.