Features International Sugar Journal

Neonicotinoids remain the philosophers stone when it comes to addressing beet yellow virus

Since the restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids for treating sugar beet seed in September 2018 in the EU, various sugar industries have been applying for and securing emergency authorization for its use because no other measures are as effective. Damage from virus yellows (VY) causes severe yield loss impacting the viability of beet production.

This issue highlights the increasingly inconsistent approach to accessing the many tools by which crops can be protected, whether seed treatments, foliar or indeed genetics. Fewer chemicals are being registered globally for agricultural production than are being removed – meaning, this issue impacts all sugar producers. At the Int Sugar Org seminar in Nov 2021, Elizabeth Lacoste, CIBE lamented the declining profitability of sugar beet production, largely due to stringent regulatory oversight by the EU on plant protection products (PPP) bereft of any “full economic and environmental impact assessments”. Some 22 active molecules used in PPPs in sugar beet have been banned, leaving growers with a shrinking toolbox to protect against insects, pests and weeds.

In 2022, derogations for neonicotinoid seed treatments have been issued in 14 European countries (Hungary, Turkey, Belgium, Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Spain, Finland, Czech Republic, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, and the United Kingdom) allowing restricted use subject to a range of strict conditions

In granting the use of neonicotinoid thiamethoxam in 2022, UK’s Secretary of State pointed out that this was to check the repeat of catastrophic losses experienced by growers in 2020 amounting to £43 million with British Sugar, the processor shouldering losses of £24 million.

Given that politicians have to balance the economic cost to their domestic industry, jobs, food security with political reaction from the green lobby when deciding whether to continue with the ban, they are invariably left with a dilemma.

This is witnessed in the patchwork approach across the EU and voters increasingly detached from the reality of farming.

Therefore, the immediate question for the EU is if the political will in the majority of countries is to enable access to neonicotinoids having accepted the scientific basis for these emergency approvals should this not be applied consistently across the EU?

Beyond praying for cold winters and hoping that the providence would oblige (highly unlikely), there is no effective plan B. Helpful non-pesticide approaches include early sowing of the crop and plant hygiene, but these are insufficient to control VY when aphid populations are high in young crops. In addition, natural predators do not control aphids rapidly enough to prevent virus transmission, and physical barriers are not economically or practically viable.

The current charade of individual industries making applications every year for derogation is simply woeful and wasteful of time and resources. To placate the green lobby, the use of neonics come with strictures. In the latest approval in the UK (similar to one in France), the Secretary of State has listed key conditions attached to the emergency authorisation. These include:

  • Neonics use is only permitted if the predicted virus incidence level is 19% or above, as determined on 1 March 2022 by the Rothamsted Research YV forecast model (which takes account of winter temperatures that are important in determining the incidence of YV and hence the threat to the crop)
  • no flowering crop to be planted in the same field as treated sugar beet within 32 months
  • no further use of thiamethoxam seed treatments on the same field within 46 months
  • the application rate of Cruiser SB reduced from 100 ml per 100,000 seeds to 75 ml per 100,000 seeds (this reduces the application rate of thiamethoxam from 60g per 100,000 seeds to 45g per 100,000 seeds)
  • a maximum drilling rate for the treated seed of 115,000 seeds per hectare

In Greek mythology, the legend has it that the reason why each cyclops had a single eye is because they traded the other one with the god Hades for the power to see in the future. But Hades tricked them – the only vision Cyclops were shown was the day they would die. This unending torture of being forewarned of their demise without the ability to do anything about it was invariably a grave burden they carried through their lives. Alas the fate of the beet sugar sector in the EU wavers in that constancy.


Many thanks to the anonymous reviewer for insights and comments which have shaped this piece.