The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is examining the possibility of banning the controversial nerve-agent pesticides increasingly implicated in the decline of bees and other pollinating insects.
Mr Paterson has asked officials of his Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to examine the practical consequences of restricting the use of neonicotinoids, which are now widely deployed across British agriculture, The Independent has learnt.
He wants to know about the likely effects on farming of a ban, and what alternatives might be available.
This is the first sign that the Government may shift its stance on neonicotinoids, which, it was disclosed yesterday, have been implicated in problems with bee health in more than 30 scientific research papers in the last three years alone.
Mr Paterson’s action will send shockwaves through the immensely profitable agro-chemical industry.
Any ban on neonicotinoids would mean many millions of pounds in lost profits for the multinational companies which manufacture them, such as Bayer and Syngenta, and would be vigorously resisted by the industry, and possibly by farmers as well.
But Defra is coming under increasing criticism for not adopting a precautionary approach towards the chemicals in the face of the rapidly mounting body of research implicating them in environmental problems, especially the widespread declines of honey bees and bumble bees.
So far, Government advisers have insisted there is no “unequivocal evidence” that they are harmful and have refused to recommend a ban, although they have been banned in other countries, including France and Germany.
Mr Paterson said today: “The health of our bees is a real concern and we have always been open-minded about the results of any new science that links bee decline with the use of certain pesticides.
“There has been a lot of research into the effect of neonicotinoids on bees in laboratories but.crucially we still don’t really know what impact they are having in the wild. That is why I have asked the Food and Environment Research Agency to speed up the field studies they are doing. Once we have the full picture in the New Year I will be asking independent experts to give us an up to date view on the safety of neonicotinoids.”
Mr Paterson’s independent experts will be the members of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, who have twice stated recently that evidence against neonicotinoids does not justify banning them.