In a vote today (27 April), countries representing 76.1% of the EU population backed the plan to clamp down on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, the use of which has been associated with declining bee populations.
France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta all voted in favour of the move. Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Denmark opposed while Poland, Belgium, Slovakia, Finland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia and Lithuania abstained.
The move represents a major extension of an existing partial ban. Since 2013, three neonicotinoids - Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin, and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam – have been prohibited in the European Union.
The proposal blocks the use of neonicotinoids to control pests in open fields but does not extend to permeant greenhouses.
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, but research has linked their use to declining pollinator populations.
Manufacturers and some farming groups have argued that the causal link between neonicotinoids and bee health is still uncertain. In a statement this morning, chemical giant Bayer said it “remains convinced that the restrictions are not warranted” because “neonicotinoids are safe”.
“The restrictions are intended to address the alleged risks the substances pose to bee health. Bayer cares about bees. They are essential for the pollination of many arable crops. But there are other, better ways to support pollinator health,” the company insisted.
Nevertheless, in February, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that “most uses” of neonicotinoid pesticides represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees.
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 UK government suggested it would back further restrictions last November after its advisory body on pesticides concluded evidence now suggests that the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids, particularly to bees and pollinators, is “greater than previously understood”. French regulators have also suggested they are considering a blanket ban at a national level.
Neonicotinoids 'tip of the iceberg'
Greenpeace welcomed today’s step but stressed that further action is needed to reverse the decline in wild bee populations.
The environmental group warned there is a risk that farmers will “swap” the banned neonicotinoids for other “harmful” chemicals. According to Greenpeace, several other insecticides are a threat to bees and other beneficial insects, including four neonicotinoids currently authorised in the EU - acetamiprid, thiacloprid, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone - and other insecticides, like cypermethrin, deltamethrin and chlorpyrifos.
“This is great news for pollinators and our wider environment, but there was never any question that these three neonicotinoids had to go. Now the EU must make sure that they are not simply swapped with other harmful chemicals. These three neonicotinoids are just the tip of the iceberg – there are many more pesticides out there, including other neonicotinoids, that are just as dangerous for bees and food production. Governments must ban all bee-harming pesticides and finally shift away from toxic chemicals in farming,” Greenpeace EU food policy adviser Franziska Achterberg said.
‘European agriculture will suffer’
The European Crop Protection Association stressed that the move will potentially have a damaging impact on the competitiveness of European agriculture.
“It’s unfortunate that a decision has been taken to further restrict the use of substances which are of such immense importance to agriculture in Europe,” Graeme Taylor, ECPA public affairs director, told FoodNavigator.
He stressed that the decision is “in direct contradiction” to conclusions reached by the French Agency for Food and the Environment (ANSES) and the EC Joint Research Centre (JRC) on “the availability and viability of alternatives”.
“European agriculture will suffer as a result of this decision. Perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but in time decision makers will see the clear impact of removing a vital tool for farmers, and European food production,” Taylor warned.
Currently chemical suppliers Bayer and Syngenta are challenging the EU over the 2013 ban in the European Court of Justice. Following a hearing in February, a judgement on the legality of the restrictions is expected late next month.
“A reversal of the current restrictions could have profound implications for the legal justification of the new proposals,” Bayer argued.