In 2018, Government supported new rules which prohibited the outdoor use across the European Union of 3 neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The ban was brought in due to the harm that the chemicals were causing to bees and other wildlife and the risk that they posed to people and animals. In taking that position, Government made it clear that it would consider emergency authorisations in special circumstances where authorisation for limited and controlled use appeared necessary because of a danger that could not be contained by any other reasonable means. However, the then Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, promised that Government would maintain the restrictions unless the scientific evidence changed.
In January 2021, in response to an application made by the National Farmers’ Union, Government decided to grant emergency authorisation to allow use of a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021. This was in recognition of the potential danger posed to the 2021 crop from beet yellows virus.
Government’s decision, which was published on 8 January, has authorised the use of the neonicotinoid against the following requirements:
- the authorisation appears necessary because of a danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means;
- use of the product will be limited and controlled; and
- there are special circumstances.
Emergency authorisations are a derogation from the normal requirements of pesticide authorisation. However, if the above requirements are met then the benefit of granting an emergency authorisation must be balanced against the potential harm from the proposed use of the product, taking into account the proposed conditions. Therefore, the potential risks to people, animals and the environment remain a key part of the evidence that needs to be considered.
The emergency authorisation which has been granted is also regulated by conditions, so as to minimise the risk. For example no flowering crop is to be planted within 22 months of the sugar beet crop and no oil seed rape crop to be planted within 32 months.
Opposition to the emergency authorisation has been raised by various environmental organisations. They argue that the authorisation, which allows “seed-dressing” of sugar beet crops with the neonicotinoids, results in only 5% of the pesticide going in the crop. The rest ends up accumulating in the soil, from where it can be absorbed by the roots of wildflowers and hedgerow plants, or can leach into rivers and streams.
Although Government has issued this as an emergency authorisation, it remains to be seen whether similar action will be repeated in years to come.