Ministers were urged to “save the bee” as Labour failed in its bid to give Parliament a say on pesticide ban exemptions.
The Government has temporarily lifted the ban on “bee-killing” pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, for use on sugar beet.
Farmers can apply for emergency use of the chemicals, which are banned because of evidence they harm bees, for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021.
Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard insisted bee health is “non-negotiable” as he moved an amendment to the Environment Bill which he claimed would “save” the pollinator.
For the Government, Environment minister Rebecca Pow defended the “emergency authorisation” for a neonicotinoid seed treatment for sugar beet and insisted it was in line with EU regulations retained in UK law.
Labour’s amendment, which placed a requirement on ministers to allow parliamentary scrutiny of pesticide exemptions, was defeated by 366 votes to 221, majority 145.
The vote came during the report stage of the Environment Bill, a piece of flagship legislation now facing further delays.
The Bill seeks to write environmental principles in UK law for the first time, following Brexit, but the Government has delayed the passage of the Bill, so it is not expected to become law until the autumn.
The legislation includes setting targets for air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction, and outlining what standard must be achieved and by what date.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Pollard said: “If bee health really is non-negotiable, then this ban must not be set aside just because it’s convenient to do so now.
“There’s no doubt that sugar beet farmers have been hit hard by crop blight, but lifting this ban is not the solution.
“Improved sugar contracts, compensation and accelerating blight-resistant varieties offer a much better answer.”
He added: “Today, Labour MPs will vote to save the bees and the Government will whip Conservative MPs to allow the ban on bee-killing pesticides to be lifted.
“In the year Britain hosts Cop26, when we should be a showcase for environmental best practice, when we should shine as a force for good, a beacon nation, we will be allowing more bees, more pollinators, to be killed by neonicotinoid pesticides.”
But Ms Pow insisted pesticides are subject to “strict” regulation and an assessment of risks to people and the environment must also take place.
She told MPs: “I know all this because I grew up on a farm.
“On the decision to grant an emergency authorisation for a neonicotinoid seed treatment for sugar beet, a non-flowering crop, this is fully in line with the EU regulations that were retained in UK law at the end of the transition period.
“Ten member states, including Belgium, Denmark and Spain, granted similar emergency authorisations in 2020.
“I’d like to assure members of the strict conditions attached to this decision to minimise environmental risks, including important protections for bees and other pollinators.”
She added: “Our opposition on neonicotinoids has not changed, we supported the ban in 2018 and we stand by that now.”
The latest delay to the legislation, which was first announced in July 2018 and introduced in 2019, comes as the UK is trying to build momentum for global action on the environment, including on climate change in its role as host of UN Cop26 talks.
Mr Pollard said the delay sends “a terrible message” to the rest of the world.
Conservative former minister Philip Dunne added it was a “great relief” to see the Bill return to the Commons for one day, but also a “great disappointment” the legislation will be delayed – and urged for it to clear Parliament by the summer recess.
The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett said news the Bill would suffer more delays was “deeply troubling” and raised questions over the Government’s commitment to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.
He said: “Recently, the Prime Minister explicitly committed to taking urgent action to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030 as part of the UN Decade of Action.
“But over a year into the decade, very little progress has been made.
“To make up for lost time, the Government must substantially ramp up its environmental ambition.
“This must start with putting a legally binding target to reverse nature’s decline by 2030 on the face of the Environment Bill when it returns, and proper funding for landscape recovery to deliver it.”
The National Trust also said the Government should be prioritising its flagship Bill, not delaying progress by several more months.