Wildlife experts urge action on pesticides as UK insect populations plummet | Insects

The UK’s insect populations are declining at alarming rates and the next government must put in place plans to monitor and reduce the use and toxicity of pesticides before it is too late, wildlife experts say.

In recent years, concerns have been raised over earthworm populations, which have fallen by a third in the past 25 years. A citizen science project that monitors flying insects in the UK, meanwhile, found a 60% decline between 2004 and 2021. The overall trajectory, as government monitoring figures show, has been downwards since the 1970s.

Yet despite the evidence of the harmful effect of pesticides on our insect population, governmental action has been slow, and experts are concerned that the UK is failing to monitor pesticide use correctly.

“There is an almost complete lack of effective monitoring of pesticide use in UK agriculture,” said Nick Mole, the policy officer at Pesticide Action Network UK. “What little we do have is incomplete, out of date and on such a broad scale as to be virtually meaningless.

“The UK urgently needs a publicly accessible record of all pesticides used on farms across the UK, that is presented within six months of application and shown at farm level or, at a minimum, by river catchment. We should also have access to pesticide sales data, information which is currently concealed beneath the cloak of commercial confidentiality. Without accurate data, it is impossible to properly assess the impact of pesticides or to make effective decisions. Right now we are legislating in the dark.”

The Conservative government was due to publish the National Action Plan on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (NAP) in 2018, which would have laid out targets and plans for pesticide reduction and monitoring. But six years later it has still not materialised.

The Pesticide Collaboration, made up of 81 NGOs, academics and farming groups including the RSPB, Buglife, British Beekeepers Association, Greenpeace and the Nature Friendly Farming Network, has set out its “red lines” for what needs to be in the delayed plan.

It said: “The UK has committed to ‘reducing the overall risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half’ in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at Cop15. This should now be reflected in national policy, and domestic pesticide regulation must go further than this and use the words ‘use’ and ‘toxicity’ instead of risk.”

Labour sources have said that they will immediately consult scientists in the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) if and when the team enters the department after the election.

The party has already announced that it will end exemptions for bee-killing pesticides that have been outlawed in the EU but which the UK government has approved for four years in a row.

This year, the Conservative government allowed the use of thiamethoxam, also known as Cruiser SB, on sugar beet crops – against the advice of its scientists, who said it would pose a threat to bees. Prof Dave Goulson, a bee expert at the University of Sussex, has warned that one teaspoon of the chemical is enough to kill 1.25bn honeybees. Even a minuscule trace of this toxin can disrupt a bee’s ability to navigate and reproduce, significantly reducing its chance of survival.

There is also a growing gap in ambition on pesticides between the UK and the EU. The UK has failed to ban 36 pesticides that are prohibited in the EU, even though ministers promised the UK would not water down EU-derived environmental standards after Brexit.

The UK has failed to ban 36 pesticides that are not allowed for use in the EU. Photograph: Loop Images Ltd/Alamy

Campaigners have called for the next government to put in place a proper strategy for pesticide reduction. Vicki Hird, agriculture lead at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Pollinating insects like bees and moths, and predators of crop pests like ladybird beetles and dragonflies, are the foundation for a productive and sustainable food system. Yet these two groups of bugs have declined by 18% and 34% respectively since 1970. An overreliance on chemicals – combined with habitat loss and climate change – could see these figures plummet even further. This would make a bad situation much worse for UK wildlife and potentially spell disaster for UK food production.

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“Despite outlining some positive intention to reduce pesticide use, the current UK government has failed to give this issue the attention it deserves. Earlier this year, it sent signals to the rest of the world that insects don’t matter by authorising the use of a banned pesticide, thiamethoxam, on sugar beet crop for the fourth year in a row. We want to see an end to these emergency authorisations and a proper plan to dramatically reduce pesticide use over the next few years. This issue – and indeed dangerous chemicals – must not be kicked into the long grass.”

Richard Benwell, the CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The UK is signed up to an international pledge to halve the risk from pesticides and hazardous chemicals by 2030. Political parties should offer greater incentives to farmers to reduce or cease pesticide use across their farms, ban the use of pesticides in urban areas, and review the approach to authorisations so that banned chemicals cannot continue to be granted emergency use”.

Under the new post-Brexit farming payments, the environment land management schemes, farmers are rewarded for using fewer pesticides. However, agricultural businesses argue that more support and education is needed so farmers do not fear moving away from the pesticides they have long relied on to grow their crops.

Martin Lines, the CEO of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said: “We’ve been on a journey of change for the last 10 to 15 years. I remember seeing fields being cultivated with very few worms and hardly any birds following the plough, so we changed the way we managed our soil to reduce disturbance and increase the organic matter that feeds the worms. As a result, I’ve seen numbers greatly increase along with improved soil health.

“Having healthier soil is leading to healthier crops, which in turns leads to less disease and less use of fungicides to control them. Gaining knowledge of the role of predatory insects, pollinators, invertebrates and beetles in managing and controlling pests led me to change practices and put more diversity of habitats in our farmed landscape. The flower-rich margins and grass margins we placed in and around our fields are home to the predatory insects and pollinators that now control the majority of our pests. This has allowed me to stop using insecticides altogether.”

Defra has been approached for comment.

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