My strange role in the death of neonicotinoids in the UK

My very first blog on my new website was an open letter to Michael Gove about neonicotinoids – the controversial family of pesticides that many scientists believe has been one of the primary causes of major reductions in insect and bird populations over the past fifteen years. I suggested that Mr Gove make a move to ban the use of neoniciotinoids.

I first published my blog on 6 November but didn’t get around to actually sending the letter to Michael Gove until 8 November. On 9 November there was a surprise announcement: Michael Gove backed a total ban on neonicotinoids.

I cannot take all the credit for this decision – after all many groups have been lobbying for the ban for some time and Greenpeace has collected more than 130,000 signature in the UK calling for it. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that the timing very neatly coincided with my intervention.

The reaction from the environmental lobby has been almost universally positive. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wrote:

Greenpeace UK tweeted:

But at the school gates that same afternoon I was talking to a friend of mine who suggested to me that the news might not be quite as positive as it at first seemed. If farmers are not using neonicotinoids, she said, then they would have to use something else and many of the alternatives are pretty horrendous as well. She also said that because the alternatives have lower efficacy then they will be used in greater quantities.

There was a similar theme in Hannah Lownsbrough’s piece in the Guardian, in which she called for Michael Gove to adopt ‘a bold stance when confronted with similar evidence about other dangerous pesticides.’

And this brilliantly demystifying document on the subject of pesticide use from the Soil Association makes the much more general point that ‘Regulation on pesticides is slowly improving but is still inadequate to fully protect the environment and human health.’

Nonetheless, I was encouraged not just by Michael Gove’s decision but for his justification in making it. He wrote that:

Environmental change on such a scale is profoundly worrying. Not least because of the critical role played by bees and other pollinators. These particular flying insects are absolutely critical to the health of the natural world. Without a healthy pollinator population we put the whole ecological balance of our world in danger.

It strikes me that someone who accepts this premiss is  not only going to make a good decision on neonicotinoids but should also support more adequate legislative regulation on pesticides in general. I hope I’m right.


An open letter to Michael Gove MP

Dear Mr Gove,

Two worrying reports about insects have come to my attention in the past couple of weeks – the first a widely reported study from Germany that has seen a 75 per cent drop in insect numbers over the past 25 years; the second a report about the steady decline in honey crop from the British Beekeepers Association.

In a survey of members of the British Beekeepers Association, 62 per cent said that they believed neonicotinoids are to blame, a belief which seems to be supported by the fact that suburban beekeepers (away from agricultural land) are returning better yields that rural beekeepers.

The first of these reports is frankly terrifying to me – a 40 year-old with two young children. I had hoped that my children might get to see as much of the beauty of the natural world as I have managed to do in my life. Now I spend more time worrying about whether they will live for as long as me, as mass extinctions of wild animals gain in speed. I think that it is our generation’s responsibility to reverse this trend. I know that you have expressed the commitment to try and leave the environment in a better state at the end of your term than at the beginning. I am dubious of your ability to do this, not least because the juggernaut of environmental destruction seems to have a scary amount of momentum that is going to be difficult to stop.

But, hey, one thing at a time – and this letter is all about insects.

It has been said many times, but it seems to need saying again: bees and other pollinating insects are vital for agriculture and a healthy ecosystem. I believe that the government has a responsibility to do their best to protect bees and it seems that a ban on neonicotinoids seems like a sensible starting point.

Do you support this move and, if you do not, how can you defend keeping neonicotinoids?

Let’s not wait until it’s too late to take decisive action – I think you can do something to make the world a slightly better place right now. Please use that power well.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin Telfer