Europe will enforce world’s first continent-wide ban on insecticides harming bees
Europe will enforce the world’s first continent-wide ban on widely used insecticides linked to serious harm in bees, after a European commission vote on Monday.
The landmark suspension is a victory for millions of environment campaigners concerned about dramatic declines in bees who were backed by experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But it is a serious defeat for the chemical companies who make billions a year from the products and also UK ministers, who both argued that the ban will harm food production.
“Today’s pesticide ban throws Europe’s bees a vital lifeline, following a massive campaign backed by 2.6 million people,” said Iain Keith, at Avaaz. “Europe is taking science seriously and must now put the full ban in place, to give bees the breathing space they need.”
The vote by the 27 member states of the European Union to suspend the insect nerve agents was supported by most nations, but did not reach the required majority under EU voting rules. However, the hung vote hands the final decision to the European commission (EC) who will implement the ban. “It’s done,” said an EC source, indicating that a formal announcement on the ban is expected within weeks.
The EC argued that EFSA has provided “a strong, substantive and scientific case for the suspension”, which it said was proportionate to the risk. Three neonicotinoids will be banned from use for two years on flowering crops such as corn, oil seed rape and sunflowers, upon which bees feed.
Bees and other insects are vital for global food production as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops. The plummeting numbers of pollinators in recent years has been blamed on disease, loss of habitat and, increasingly, the near ubiquitous use of neonicotinoid pesticides. A series of high-profile scientific studies has linked neonicotinoids – the world’s most widely used insecticides – to huge losses in the number of queens produced and big increases in “disappeared” bees, those that fail to return from foraging trips.
Pesticide manufacturers and UK ministers argued that the science is inconclusive, but conservationists say the harm stemming from dying pollinators is even greater. In a private letter to Syngenta released to the Observer, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, told the chemical company on 20 April that he was “extremely disappointed” by the proposed ban. He said that “the UK has been very active” in opposing it and “our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days”. Parliament’s green watchdog, the environmental audit committee, investigated the issue of pollinators and concluded a ban was a necessary precaution and accused ministers of “extraordinary complacency“.
Neonicotinoids have been widely used for more than decade and are used as seed treatments rather than sprays, meaning the insecticide pervades the growing plant, as well as its nectar and pollen. They are less harmful that some of the sprays they replaced, but scientific studies have increasingly linked them to poor bee health. Many, including the National Farmers’ Union, accept that EU regulation is inadequate, as it only tests on honeybees and not the wild pollinators that service 90% of plants. The regulatory testing also only considers short term effects and does not consider the combined effects of multiple pesticides.
The chemical industry has warned that a ban on neonicotinoids would lead to the return of older, more harmful pesticides and crop losses. But campaigners point out that this has not happened during temporary suspensions in France, Italy and Germany and that the use of natural pest predators and crop rotation can tackle problems.
Christopher Connolly, a bee expert at the University of Dundee, said: “If neonicotinoids are not being replaced [with more harmful chemical], then absolutely I support the precautionary principle. I don’t think that there is evidence that they would need to be replaced, but such decisions are not always evidence-based.”
The use of neonicotinoids is also under attack in the US, where a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups and food campaigners is suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect pollinators.
Professor Simon Potts, from the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, gave written and oral evidence to the select committee ‘bee/pesticide’ report earlier this year. Professor Simon Potts has been studying bees and pollination services for 25 years.
“This is excellent news for British pollinators. The weight of evidence from researchers, including those at the University of Reading, clearly points to the need to have a phased ban of neonicotinoids; something which the recent Environmental Audit Committee report called for. It is frustrating that Defra has sat on the fence by abstaining from the last vote, and forced the European Commission to take the lead by imposing a moratorium.
“Few people would disagree that we need to protect our food production, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of damaging the environment. Indeed, there are several alternatives to using neonicotinoids, and other pesticides, and this a great opportunity for farmers to adopt these practices to protect bees and other pollinators. Indeed famers will benefit from healthy pollinator populations as they provide substantial economic benefits to crop pollination. A short-term decision to keep using harmful products may be convenient, but will almost certainly have much greater long-term costs for food production and the environment.”
Friends of the Earth’s Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton said:
“This decision is a significant victory for common sense and our beleagured bee populations.
“Restricting the use of these pesticides could be an historic milestone on the road to recovery for these crucial pollinators.
“But pesticides are just one of the threats bees face – if David Cameron is genuinely concerned about declining bee numbers he must urgently introduce a Bee Action Plan.”
Commenting on the UK Government’s failure to support restrictions on neonicotinoids, Andrew Pendleton said:
“The UK Government’s refusal to back restrictions on these chemicals, despite growing scientific concern about their impact, is yet another blow to its environmental credibility.
“Ministers must now help farmers to grow and protect crops, but without relying so heavily on chemicals – especially those linked to bee decline.”
Vanessa Amaral-Rogers, Buglife’s Pesticide Officer said “At last, the politicians are starting to listen to the science. This is a good start, but this ban will not be robust enough. In reality, a two year suspension is not enough to see our bee populations recover. Neonicotinoids have a half-life (the time taken for half of the chemical to disappear) in soil of over three years, and will still be used on winter crops. The next step is to put a monitoring programme in place which will assess how all pollinators, not just honeybees, are doing as a result of the ban.”
This is the second time that the proposal has been put forward by the European Commission. In January, a report by the European Food Safety Authority identified a ‘high acute risk’ to honeybees from Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam, and an unknown risk to other pollinators such as bumblebees and hoverflies. Last month, the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health voted on the ban, but it failed to go through as a number of countries, including the UK, refused to vote. However the European Commission appealed the decision and this time the ban has met with favour, with fifteen countries voting in favour of the ban.
Vanessa said “The European Commission now needs to asses the risks from the remaining two neonics, acetamiprid and thiacloprid. Although these chemicals are relatively less potent than the other three, their toxicity can be increased by up to 560 times when combined with other chemicals such as certain fungicides. Acetamiprid and thiacloprid are used less frequently on crops, but we are concerned that they will be used to replace the main three once the ban in force, removing any benefits that the ban would have”.
By Damian Carrington