I forgive you for missing the belated publication of the UK’s brand new action plan for the “sustainable” use of pesticides, given that it was not announced anywhere by anyone but simply stuck on obscure government web page.
Such modesty is perhaps unsurprising: ministers have a great deal to be modest about when it comes to pesticides, particularly the growing scandal of its complacency over the impact of neonicotinoids on the bees and other pollinators on which a third of our food relies.
But as luck would have it, ministers and officials had to break cover to give evidence – again – to MPs on the environment audit committee. And how revealing it was.
While environment secretary Owen Paterson was telling farmers on Wednesday that a European Commission proposal to suspend neonicotinoids must be delayed at least until new British field data is published, his own chief scientist was telling MPs that those very trials had been terribly compromised.
There is great irony in the fact that the problem with the trials is that the “control” hives – meant to be free of neonicotinoids – were contaminated with those very same pesticides. Scientists have warned for some time that the field trials – demanded as proof of harm by the industry that makes billions from selling the chemicals – are virtually impossible to do because neonics are almost ubiquitous. They are the most used insecticides in the world.
So while Paterson was saying “I have asked the Commission to wait for the results of our field trials, rather than rushing to a decision based on lab tests alone”, chief scientist Ian Boyd was telling MPs “at the control site, there were residues of neonics in pollen and nectar”. Boyd added, hilariously, “this is the nature of field studies – you can’t control for everything.”
You can of course control for many factors in lab-based studies, but they are not realistic, claim ministers and industry lobbyists alike. Isn’t that a lovely Catch-22 with which to maintain the profitable status quo?
Nonetheless, even despite the serious flaws, the study appeared to show slower growth rates in hives sited next to fields treated with the neonic imidacloprid.
Paterson was disingenuous in calling the growing pile of evidence of neonic harm “lab-based”: many studies allow the insects to fly freely outside into fields and beyond, but give measured doses of the chemicals precisely to avoid the problems Boyd revealed. Boyd also claimed the doses given are much greater than real field doses, contradicting the description of them as “field-realistic” in peer-reviewed studies published in the world’s leading scientific journals.
Paterson’s minister, Lord de Mauley continued the twisting of information when he disputed the MPs assertion that the European Food Safety Authority’s recent report did not recommend a suspension of neonics: the tables in the EFSA report very clearly do so.
The UK, along with Spain and Germany, is thought to be blocking the EU’s attempts to suspend three neonics for two years for flowering crops like oil seed rape. The national action plan (NAP) on pesticides demonstrate similar intransigence.
Asked what has changed compared to the draft issued for consultation, David Bench, director of chemicals regulation at the Health and Safety Executive, told MPs: “The final draft is broadly the same as the earlier draft. We have just clarified the wording a bit.” MP Matthew Offord was driven to sarcasm, asking rhetorically whether Bench thought the consultation had been “effective”?
The government is bound to produce the NAP by EU law, which states: “Member States should monitor the use of plant protection products containing substances of particular concern and establish timetables and targets for the reduction of their use”. Yet the “comprehensive” (29-page) NAP contains no timetable or targets, despite the area of crops being doused with pesticide actually being on the rise in the UK.
Bench said, with a straight face: “We are not in favour of quantitative pesticide reduction targets as they are generally meaningless.” The committee chair, Joan Walley was agog by this point and asked about the UK’s legal responsibility. “We have checked with our lawyers that our pesticides action plan satisfies the requirements of directive,” said Bench. Walley’s face remained agog, while MP Martin Caton accused officials of “cherry-picking” from the EU rules.
Paul de Zylva, at Friends of the Earth, sums it up nicely: “Ministers had the chance to produce an NAP to reduce risk to people, bees and other wildlfe. It has failed. This is more of an inaction plan. This was a chance for the government to show that when it says it’s not complacent about public health and bees alike that it means it. Instead, it’s done as little as it can to get by.”
Ministers say they want to “ensure that the NAP forms a ‘living’ document“. Yet their dither, delay and denial seems likely only to result in the continued death of more of the pollinators on which much of our food depends.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010