LAWYERS for ClientEarth have warned the UK’s environmental watchdog that the 2024 ‘emergency authorisation’ of a pesticide which poses a serious risk to honeybees and waterways may be yet another instance of the government breaching environmental law.

This comes just months after lawyers filed a complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection, where ClientEarth argued that by granting an emergency authorisation to use a neonicotinoid pesticide on sugar beet crops in East Anglia in January 2023, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) may have failed to comply with environmental law.

Bees and other pollinators underpin the health of our environment and our food systems, and experts have warned their survival is at risk with the use of neonicotinoids. Both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Expert Committee on Pesticides raised serious concerns over the 2023 emergency authorisation because the pesticide contains thiamethoxam – a chemical which has the potential to cause serious harm to pollinators.

According to the 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”.

Neonicotinoid pesticides can stay active in affected soil for years and a recent study has shown they are also appearing in rivers. Recent data gathered by the Environment Agency shows that more than one in 10 English rivers now contain neonicotinoid pesticides, with many of these at levels which are considered unsafe for aquatic life.

‘Emergency authorisations’, as the name suggests, are intended for the department to approve the use of unauthorised chemicals in exceptional or emergency situations.ClientEarth believes that the government has not only failed to correctly apply the test for emergency authorisations according to the law, but that it has also failed to comply with its legal duty to consider the potential impact of the authorisation on protected nature sites.

ClientEarth made separate requests to engage with the department on its 2023 approval decision but did not receive a timely response to their concerns and have therefore escalated the matter by submitting a complaint to the Office of Environmental Protection last November.

Two months after the complaint’s original filing, the UK’s Office for Environmental Protection found the government to be “largely off track” to meeting its own ambitions in the Environmental Improvement Plan to ensure that chemicals are safely used and managed and to halt biodiversity decline.

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.”

Neonicotinoids are banned for outdoor use in the EU and a recent European court ruling confirmed that emergency authorisations cannot be used to approve banned substances. Meanwhile, the UK continues to grant approval for neonicotinoids, having revoked the ban on these substances in 2019. According to recent research by PAN UK, there are now up to 36 pesticides approved in the UK which are no longer permitted for use in the EU.

This is despite numerous assurances given by the government that the UK will maintain and increase standards of environmental protection.

Lawyers highlighted the UK government’s clear promises to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides in its 25 Year Environment Plan of 2018 and the Environmental Improvement Plan of 2023. 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.

Lischak added: “Farmers are custodians of much of our natural environment. The government must fully support them in making the switch to using environmentally sustainable methods of pest control that work with nature, instead of continuing to approve pesticides that carry risks of environmental harm.”

* PAN UK’s 2023 report on the UK falling behind on EU pesticide standards is available here.

* Source: ClientEarth