Why has Michael Gove banned some bee-killing pesticides in the UK but not others?

There are further tests for the secretary of state if he is to prove his environmental credentials.

Last week, Michael Gove announced, to much rejoicing by many environmentalists, that he would back an EU ban on bee-killing neonicotinoids. But is this really a true sign of his environmental commitment, Molly Scott Cato argues not.

So has Michael Gove seen the green light about the collapse of life on Earth, which appears to be beginning with the insect kingdom? Will he turn himself into a green knight to assure his political legacy?

Many environmentalists have been astonished by the public posture of Michael Gove since he took over at DEFRA. He talks to environmental NGOs a lot, and not just the ones who agree with him.

He goes to their dinners. He gives them small but juicy tidbits like a deposit bottle scheme or a public attack on the ivory trade. And now that ban on neonicotinoids. This is a bit awkward, because, as a Green, and often the bearer of bad news, you don’t want to criticise a politician who agrees with you.

Some seem to be viewing Gove through rose tinted glasses and have fallen for his ‘environmentalist’ claims. His latest attempt at wooing the green lobby is to announce a new post-Brexit environment watchdog, ignoring the fact that it was the Tories that abolished such a watchdog seven years ago.

I believe Gove is posturing on a series of environmental cheap wins merely to establish himself as a sheep, before revealing himself as a wolf.

We already see him avoiding the more contentious issues. None more so than glyphosate. This week, while the UK was abuzz with Gove’s announcement on banning neonicotinoids, our chaps in Brussels voted for the renewal of the license for this toxic chemical.

This is Europe’s most used herbicide and is linked to cancers and other health problems while damaging biodiversity and soil health. By voting to renew its licence, the UK ignored environmentalists and the one and a half million EU citizens who have signed a petition against it.

They also went against the wishes of other EU countries who want to see glyphosate banned, including France, Italy and Belgium. Perhaps that was precisely the point.

Gove’s approach to glyphosate is a much clearer test of his environmental credentials. At the heart of the debate over the use of this chemical is the precautionary principle: the idea that even in the absence of scientific consensus, a policy or action that might cause harm to human health or the environment should not be pursued.

Gove has yet to confirm whether his ‘environmentalism’ extends to embracing this principle. But it seems unlikely, especially because of his belief in what is falsely called ‘conservation agriculture’, otherwise known as the ‘no till’ or ‘minimum till’ method of preparing fields before a crop is sown.

Gove recently witnessed for himself such a farm in Shropshire. His host for the visit was none other than Owen Patterson, former environment secretary climate sceptic, who waxed lyrical about ‘innovative British farmers’ using ‘the most effective herbicide available.’

It’s true that tilling the soil to clear it of weeds before sowing has its problems. It disturbs the microbes, nutrients and organisms that make soil fertile and healthy, and releases carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil.

However, conventionally at least, no or minimum till relies on heavy herbicide and pesticide use to rid the soil of weeds and pests. Far from being ecologically sound, as the agribusiness lobby would lead us to believe, this can be extremely damaging for the soil and the life forms that reside within it. This has knock on effects on wildlife including birdlife and er, bees.

From his wooing of environmental groups and organisations, Gove will be well aware of the chemical-free methods of killing weeds. Of course, organic farmers already use non-chemical methods which result in organic farms having 50% more abundant plant, insect and bird life.

If Gove is to be taken seriously as an environmentalist he will need to weed out the harmful techniques being pushed by corporate agribusiness as they try and seduce us into believing we can have our cake and eat it: chemical methods which deliver both safe food to eat and protect our environment. What they really want to grow of course is their profits.

Instead Gove will need to provide a clear guarantee that banning neonicitinoids is just the start and that he will not give the green light to any toxic substances in our farming.

He would also promise sufficient subsidies for British farmers to adapt to non-chemical methods and enable them access to viable and affordable alternatives.

In politics it’s useful to remember the adage: ‘by your friends shall ye know them’. Let’s not forget that Michael Gove and Owen Paterson – while seemingly talking very different languages on the environment – are still partners in crime on pushing a hard Brexit, cruel austerity cuts and a host of other damaging policies.

Gove is a subversive and a political chameleon so he is a challenging opponent. But the green movement would be wise to keep him in special measures.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South west and is a member of the Agriculture Committee in the European Parliament.

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6 Responses to “Why has Michael Gove banned some bee-killing pesticides in the UK but not others?”

  1. An accountant

    There is no compromise that can be reached with US dominated industrial agriculture based on bleached chiccken, hormone fed beef, GMO crops designed to survive baths of toxic chemicals, Mega meat factories with relaxed welfare and environmental controls , all in turn based on subsidised energy, use of soil destroying heavy machinery /chemicals and eradication of labour.
    The future for Britain is more labour intensive, mixed farming , with subsidies for labour not land owners. It is more productive and sustainable in the long run (see http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodFutures.php).
    Europe is heading in that direction already. Turning away to follow the US lead will be a disaster.

  2. Chester Draws

    At the heart of the debate over the use of this chemical is the precautionary principle: the idea that even in the absence of scientific consensus, a policy or action that might cause harm to human health or the environment should not be pursued.

    No, that is not the precautionary principle at all, at least not how it operates in the real world.

    If that was the case we should ban all cars, since they kill thousands. Pretty much any drug with a side-effect — that is, of course all drugs — would also be banned. All things known to poison people would be banned, so no peanuts and no milk.

    Far from relaxing drug laws, we should work harder to eradicate all possible recreational drugs because they are known to be dangerous to many people (how does that go down with LFF’s clientele, I wonder?).

    The Principle says, actually, that we should not rush into changes that risk making things worse unless we have high confidence that the change will be for the overall good. We cannot avoid side-effects, because everything has side effects.

    By getting rid of glyphosphate we will leave the space for something worse. Who knows what the effect will be? It could be terrible.

    Of course, organic farmers already use non-chemical methods which result in organic farms having 50% more abundant plant, insect and bird life.

    What about those organic farmers who killed all those people with their toxic veges in Germany? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/10/e-coli-bean-sprouts-blamed If we ban anything potentially dangerous then we have to ban organic farming too.

    But more importantly, organic farmers survive in the same way that non-vaccinators survive. By riding on the herd keeping them safe. If every farmer went non-chemical then there would be no-one holding down the insect populations, and we’d have a lot more than 50% higher insect and bird life. We’d be back at swarms of potato beetles, starlings stripping whole orchards etc. Produce would be insect ridden, expensive and rot faster. Best not to risk it, I say!

    So the precautionary principle says we shouldn’t go totally non-chemical, because there is a terrible side-effect. That’s the thing about the precautionary principle — it can always be used, for any suggested change. Or non-change.

  3. Eva

    No, organic farmers are not riding on the herd for controlling pests. They ride on the organic diversity for it as they do not kill the natural predators. In natural environments there is a fine balance between different living beings, that organic farming is trying to keep up or maybe rather imitate as best possible. Organic produce is also not more prone to rotting but the contrary. Without the chemical fertilizer the content of dry solids will be higher and the produce better guarded against bacteria and other invaders. If the organic stuff in the shop is rotting more often it is because of the lesser rate of sales and longer shelf life. And this factor would be obsolete once the “poisoned” stuff is not produced any more :-).

  4. Julian

    Factually inaccurate as it seems Molly cannot even keep up with events in her own parliament. Eu has not voted to renew Roundup despite the fact that even their own regulatory body has found it non carcinogenic. Roundup is a herbicide not an insecticide as are neonics however she implies that both are toxic to bees. She then acknowledges that alternative methods of weed control via cultivation are damaging to soils but then goes on to say how she supports that approach. I suppose if your anti all chemistry be it benign or not and anti any conservative politician regardless of their actions or motivation then the article makes sense but it’s hardly the work of a grown up mind.

  5. Theresa

    I disagree with Julian.

  6. Theresa

    In reply to Chester Draws
    I think it is more complicated than you have described. It’s not as straight forward as you think. There is also the health of rural residents to take into account. Please see Georgina Downs UK Pesticides Campaign and Econexus – the Corruption of Agricultural Science. There is also the matter of looking at other methods of pest control so the debate needs to be kept open…….. Helen Wallace has information on the GeneWatch website about research agendas and education…also useful here might be the Corporate Europe Observatory work on lobbying. So some of the problem is with regard to research Agendas. Please see the APPG Agroecology website. It’s difficult to have a discussion because of the amount of money involved. Perhaps the issue needs to be looked at in the short, medium and long term?
    Testbiotech are good on GM animal feed and the precautionary principle and GM Freeze have a GM animal feed labelling campaign. The APPG Agroecology website also has information about the corruption of Agricultural science, please see Steven Druker meeting. I am unable to post links due to the comment filters on this website. I have tried and failed to post any links yet other comments contain web links? The Oxford Real Farming Conference is in January and I am sure related issues will be discussed there.
    Georgina Downs has an article on the Counterpunch website where there is plenty of information about pesticide spraying and residents.

    Poison in the Fields: Agriculture as Chemical Warfare
    by GEORGINA DOWNS Counterpunch website
    Please support Georgina Downs’ UK Pesticides Campaign

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