Pesticide approval by UK government may have breached the law

  • Post last modified:March 28, 2024
  • Reading time:7 mins read

The UK government is alleged to have bulldozed through environmental law to greenlight the use of a bee-killing pesticide. It’s more bad news in the midst of the rapidly worsening biodiversity crisis.

Breaching environmental law

Lawyers from environmental law firm ClientEarth have warned that the UK’s environmental watchdog that the 2024 ‘emergency authorisation’ of a pesticide poses a serious risk to nature. Crucially, they have suggested that this may be yet another instance of the government breaching environmental law.

As the name suggests, the government is supposed to use ‘emergency authorisations’  to approve the use of unauthorised chemicals in exceptional or emergency situations. However, ClientEarth is arguing that the government has failed to correctly apply the test for these according to the law.

As the Canary’s Tracy Keeling previously explained:

The UK’s underlying ban on neonicotinoids comes from its time as an EU member. There’s a bloc-wide ban on outdoor use of neonicotinoids. Until recently, this ban also had a mechanism for emergency authorisations.

Moreover, she detailed that a European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a ruling in January 2023 that will prohibit the EU from using these authorisations. As a result, the EU bans neonicotinoids for outdoor use in the bloc.

Meanwhile however, the UK continues to grant approval for neonicotinoids, having revoked the ban on these substances in 2019. According to recent research by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, there are now up to 36 pesticides approved in the UK which are no longer permitted for use in the EU.

Moreover, ClientEarth lawyers highlighted that the UK government has made clear promises to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides. It did so in both its 25 Year Environment Plan of 2018 and the Environmental Improvement Plan of 2023. Vitally, the Environmental Improvement Plan acknowledged that:

there is growing evidence that pesticides have the potential to impact non-target species such as pollinators and soil-dwelling invertebrates, which provide essential services to farmers and growers and are crucial for a thriving natural environment.

A risk to bees

Alongside this, a key government body and an independent committee both advised against the government’s use of these recent authorisations.

First, the government’s own health body, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) refuted that there was a compelling basis for the emergency authorisation. In particular, it stated that it was:

unable to conclude that the benefit of use outweighs the risks.

Then, the government’s independent panel of pesticide experts concurred with HSE’s evaluation. It also concluded that the emergency authorisation lacked justification.

Primarily, HSE and the panel’s verdict came from the significant risks the pesticide could pose to pollinators.

Bees and other pollinators are vital to biodiversity and the ecosystems that underpin it. This is because they play a huge role in the health of our environment and food systems. For instance, animals pollinate 87 of the world’s major crops, which collectively account for 35% of global food production. What’s more, 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination.

Yet experts have warned that neonicotinoids put their survival at risk. According to HSE’s report, even at non-lethal doses, exposure to thiamethoxam may compromise pollinators’ ability to forage and navigate and potentially cause “a reduction in survival of honeybees”.

What’s more, studies have shown that neonicotinoid pesticides can stay active in affected soil for years. To make matters worse, separate research has shown that they are also appearing in rivers.

For instance, recent analysis of data gathered by the Environment Agency shows that more than one in 10 English rivers now contain neonicotinoid pesticides. Alarmingly, it found that many of these were at levels which it considered unsafe for aquatic life.

Given this, ClientEarth’s complaint also argued that the government was threatening key biodiversity sites. It said that the government had failed to comply with its legal duty to consider the potential impact of the authorisation on protected nature sites.

Making emergency use “meaningless”

Naturally, it also isn’t the first time the government has gone against advice to appease agricultural interests either. Nor is it the first time that ClientEarth has taken action in response.

Notably, the government has approved the harmful pesticide for use for four years running.

Previously, ClientEarth had challenged the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on its 2023 approval decision.

Specifically, in November 2023, ClientEarth lawyers filed a complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection. In this, they argued that by granting an emergency authorisation to use a neonicotinoid pesticide on sugar beet crops in East Anglia in January 2023, Defra may have failed to comply with environmental law.

As a result, ClientEarth’s UK head Kyle Lischak said:

For a fourth year in a row, the UK government has now authorised a potent pesticide for what it sees as an ‘emergency use’ – which goes well-beyond the scope of an emergency authorisation in our opinion and runs the risk of making the process meaningless if this kind of approval continues.

We believe this and last year’s approval are breaches of environmental law and have the potential to undermine the important role played by pollinators in food production and the pollination of wild plants.

The risks this pesticide poses to these vital systems could be compounded in coming years if the government continues to grant emergency authorisations like this one, on what is, in our view, an unlawful basis.

Feature image via Louise Docker/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1200 by 900, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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