The commission’s proposal for placing a partial ban on neonicotinoids to counter falling bee populations is proving to be a divisive issue. Kayleigh Lewis reports.
With the bee population rapidly declining across the EU, the use of pesticides is increasingly under scrutiny. Following a recent report by the European food safety authority (EFSA) the commission proposed a partial ban on three pesticides considered to pose a fatal risk to bees across the EU. EFSA found that three neonicotinoid pesticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothiandin) had significantly contributed to the decline of bee populations. EFSA said that bees were at high risk from neonicotinoids, particularly when used on nectar producing crops, such as cotton, sunflowers and oil seed rape and that the pesticides affected bee colony survival and development, as well as bee larvae and bee behaviour. Health and consumer policy commissioner Tonio Borg, who announced the commission’s partial ban last month, said, “Protecting the health of our bee population is of great importance, not only for our European agricultural sector, but also for our ecosystem and environment as a whole.”
Greens/EFA MEP Bart Staes, who headed up the ‘Give bees a chance’ campaign, said that his party “applauded” the commission’s quick reaction to the report. However, he added that a European environment agency report, which followed EFSA’s findings, highlighted “the failures of the European and national risk assessment and monitoring systems that have permitted neonicotinoids to harm bees for a long period”. “Europe’s politicians should prioritise saving the bees rather than listening to the short-term interests of the pesticide industry. A complete ban of all neonicotinoids is the least we can do to stop the collapse of our bee colonies.”
But Mark Titterington, of agri-business Syngenta, said that the pesticides “are much more valuable to farmers and the economy”. He said that any restriction on the use of neonicotinoids is estimated to cost around €5bn annually through loss of crop productivity. “This loss in productivity would have to be made up by bringing another three million hectares of land into production outside of Europe at a cost of 544 million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions,” he said.
“It is highly regrettable that the approach taken has created the impression that by simply banning these pesticides the worrying decline in bee health will be reversed. It ignores the fact that bee health has declined significantly in Scotland and Switzerland, where there is very little use of these pesticides, or that bee populations in Australia are thriving where they are widely used.” He said that independent monitoring, much of it carried out by member state authorities, including in France, clearly show that these pesticides have been used safely without damaging bee health on millions of hectares of crops for over a decade.
“It’s not clear why we are not focusing on developing tractable solutions to the real causes of the decline in bee health, which are disease and loss of habitat and nutrition. But the real tragedy here is that any decision to restrict the use of these pesticides would not only be unjustified and cause significant economic damage, it will actually do nothing whatsoever to improve the health of bees,” he said
Rebecca Wells, an assistant European policy advisor at the UK’s National Farmers Union, said, “It is a very emotive subject because everyone cares about bees, especially farmers. We need bees, so if there is a problem then we need to do something about it, but we worry about what evidence the commission is basing its proposals on.
She added that the EFSA report doesn’t say anything new and that any tests should be conducted in the field, not just in laboratories, as she says was the case with this report. She also said that farmers felt the decision to ban the neonicotinoids was hasty, and that more research should be done to confirm the risk, rather than relying on the evidence of one report.
However, Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero disagreed, saying that the decision to ban the neonicotinoids was not “out of the blue”. “The EFSA report was a reaction to a series of initiatives that the commission took in the last two or three years.” “The commission’s plan is a welcome first step to address the harmful effects of pesticides on bees,” he said, but it “stopped short of recommending a wider precautionary ban covering the use of neonicotinoids in cases where EFSA identified a crucial data gap. Prevention measures should be applied to all areas where there is no data available to assess the risk.”
Alyn Smith, a member of parliament’s agriculture committee, said, “The importance of bees to our food producers has been overlooked for too long, and the alarming numbers of colony collapses are extremely worrying. What is becoming clear, however, is that the link between pesticides and these collapses is in desperate need of further examination. With the annual value of pollination by bees being put in the region of €15bn, we simply cannot afford to just wait and see. I am glad that the commission has finally woken up to the reality of what the decline of bees really means.”
Written for The Parliament Magazine.