EFSA confirms neonicotinoid threat to bees ahead of ban vote

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

EFSA backs neonicotinoid link to declining bee populations ©iStock
EFSA backs neonicotinoid link to declining bee populations ©iStock
Europe’s food safety regulator has confirmed that bee populations are put at risk by the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. However, industry groups argue that this is just one part of a more complicated picture.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that “most uses​” of neonicotinoid pesticides represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees, according to assessments published today (28 February).

Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA’s pesticides unit, said that the availability of a “substantial​” amount of data enabled the Authority to “produce very detailed conclusions​”.

“There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure. Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed,​” he concluded.

The report looked at three types of neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. It assessed bee exposure via three routes: residues in pollen and nectar, dust drift when treated seeds are planted and water contamination. Lower risks scenarios include situations where neonicotinoids are contained in glass greenhouses. Use of the pesticides outside on field crops presents a higher risk to bees.

The assessment updates a 2013 report published by the EFSA, which promoted the European Commission to impose EU-wide controls on the use neonicotinoid.

The EFSA’s latest assessment is likely yo play a role in whether European regulators decide to maintain neonicotinoid restrictions. Member States are set to discuss an EC proposal to extend the ban on neonicotinoids for use in fields at the Plant Animal Food and Feed Standing Committee, which is due to meet next month. The EC’s proposals would allow continued application in greenhouses.

Environmental groups welcomed the EFSA’s findings and called on national governments to back the proposed ban.

“The evidence is overwhelming that bees, and the crops and plants they pollinate, are at dire risk from neonicotinoid pesticides. National governments must stop dithering and back the proposed EU neonicotinoid ban as the first step to prevent the catastrophic collapse of bee populations,”​ Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy adviser, said.

Industry calls for collaboration, not restrictions

In contrast, industry groups have insisted that neonicotinoid use is only one-part a more complex issue.

European Crop Protection Association public affairs director Graeme Taylor said that there was “no evidence”​ of a causal link between bee population trends and neonicotinoid restrictions.

“We question the basis of the 2013 restrictions,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “Where we differ from the EFSA’s assessment is the nature of that risk. Neonicotinoids are one of many, many factors contributing to declining bee populations.”

Rather than arbitrarily banning these pesticides, Taylor suggested that closer collaboration is needed between stakeholders, including the chemicals industry, regulators and NGOs.

“We believe the EC should rescind proposals to extend the ban. A more joined up approach across all different actors with interests in the area [is required]. There needs to be a platform where all different parties can come together and look for solutions.”

Pesticide supplier Bayer also insisted that the restrictions should not be extended, pointing to contradictory studies from the US Environmental Protection Agency and Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

“EFSA’s findings place it outside the current mainstream science on bee health,”​ Bayer argued in a statement.

“EFSA chose to base its assessment on an unworkable guidance document that makes it impossible to field a study that would not find risk, despite repeated requests by Member States for a review of this guidance. EFSA’s conclusions can therefore not be used as a measuring stick to justify further neonicotinoid restrictions.”

However, a new global study published this week in academic journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research linked neonicotinoids to negative environmental outcomes.

Through a global assessment of 200 scientific studies, the International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides found that use of neonicotinoids over the past two decades has inflicted “serious damage” to birds, pollinators and other insects without generally increasing yields.

“This study should be the final nail in the coffin for these dangerous pesticides,”​ argued Lori Ann Burd, director of US-based Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program.

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1 comment

Bayer's "Science" has Invested Interest

Posted by Anika Hanisch,

It's disturbing that Bayer's opinion would be involved at all in decisions that ought to be based on science. Profit-motivated research is always skewed. There's no way around that. Bayer shouldn't even have a place at the table. I'm pro-business, but businesses have one essential purpose regardless of the product or service sold: to grow and protect profits.

We have outside regulatory entities for a reason. In the US the line between regulators and corporate interests has entirely blurred. That's not sustainable. Kudos to Europe for trying to maintain some level of science-based regulation, let alone plain common sense.

Neonics harm bees. Yes, colony collapse has "many factors" involved. But to say "Let's keep spraying insecticides that harm bees since it's not the 'only factor' involved" is about as sensible as a lung cancer patient saying "My smoking wasn't the only thing that caused it; I'll just eat better, go through treatment... and keep smoking." Seriously.

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