Twenty-twenty: an epidemic proliferated across Europe, wreaking devastation, hitting the South of England badly, and continuing into 2021. The government is legislating emergency measures. No, I’m not referring to CoV-SARS-2.
I’m talking about Beet Yellows Virus.
On 8 January, the government authorised use of thiamethoxam for tackling BYV. Thiamethoxam was banned in 2018 across the EU, with UK support, as part of wider restrictions on the neonicotinoid family of pesticides.
There is no relevant change in the evidence for restricting those pesticides.
The virus infects and kills sugar beet, the main ingredient behind UK-sourced refined sugar. BYV (and related diseases) are spread by aphids as the insect feeds on sugar beet’s sap.
The government recognised and recognises that, at a time when England’s insect population is rapidly falling, thiamethoxam poses a serious danger to bees: likely a key cause of colony collapse. It impacts other insects too, birds and mammals eating treated seedlings, and probably aquatic insects too, from pesticide running off fields and polluting rivers.
Despite the timing, it is not primarily Brexit which enabled the government’s emergency licensing. Loopholes in the original legislation permitted “emergency authorisation”, which has been widely granted with insufficient justification.
Climate change has fuelled the spread of BYV. Milder temperatures allow aphids to overwinter. Aphids traditionally migrated from their winter hosts to their summer hosts around April or July. This, like plant growth, is affected by temperature. Sugar beets are most vulnerable when they are youngest. Warmer and drier springs can cause larger and earlier migrations of aphids, hitting crops when they are less resilient.
Farmers have increasingly relied on pesticides to combat aphids and the BYV that aphids spread. As aphids evolved resistance to other pesticides, reliance increased on neonicotinoids. With the ban, farmers are left unprotected and exposed.
But why were the crops so vulnerable, so at risk, in the first place?
Large-scale and factory farming facilitates the evolution and spread of viruses through its defenceless animal captives, wiping out flocks and herds and even threatening humanity with zoonotic diseases. Similarly, mass monoculture plant farming, monocropping year on year, not only degrades soil and damages ecosystems, but leaves its crop open to diseases to tear through them like wildfire.
High density of sugar beet can help spread the virus. BYV typically remains active for up to three days within its aphid vectors, so it can only travel as far as its insect carrier can in that time period, before it must find another plant host. Additionally, “BYV has no significant weed reservoirs of infection... and the only sources of the virus are overwintered beet plants left in the field.”
Cramming the plants in thus provides fertile ground for BYV to spread; and continual intense monocropping, for BYV to survive and grow from harvest to harvest.
The risks brought about by high density of a single species are exacerbated by genetic uniformity. Plants, like all life, “naturally” have genetic variation from one individual to the next. This acts as a crucial firebreak against pestilence, as some will happen to be more resistant to a given threat. The plants which fare better propagate further, and so evolution by natural selection breeds resistance: the plant species fights back.
Most modern large scale farming instead sources largely genetically identical species from breeders. Crops are replenished from the same sources, rather than reproducing themselves, precluding evolution by natural selection. The industry breeders then try to use available science to keep pace with the evolution of viruses which are replicating and evolving at a mind-bending rate.
In fact, the beet industry has increasingly relied on the bee-killing pesticides to take out the aphids rather than on intelligent breeding.
Monocropping and pesticides also damage or destroy local ecosystems that can provide another line of defence against diseases and pests. Natural predators, for example, keep pest — virus vector — numbers in check.
As socialists, we do not cling to fairytale rustic visions, wanting to take society or agriculture back to a past that never existed. We believe in the use of science and technology to reduce human labour and increase quality of life. But we believe in science and technology wielded for the betterment of humanity, the environment, and animals; not the short term interests of private profit.
I don’t know what the immediate short term solution to the BYV epidemic is. But in the medium term we need to phase out pesticides, and transform agriculture to grow a diversity of interspersed crops in an ecologically sustainable way, using the best of science, and using natural pest control — “biocontrol”.
Pathogens don’t respect land ownership or property rights. The transition cannot simply be one farm at a time, especially given the often higherimmediate economic costs of better ecological practices.