The three neonicotinoids pesticides – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – are used to coat seeds before germination, and are added to soil or sprayed on plants. They are produced mainly by Germany's Bayer and Switzerland's Syngenta.
In scientific reports published earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said the three neonicotinoids posed “high acute risks” to honeybees in certain crop uses. The EFSA reports triggered a proposal by the Commission on banning the three substances.
On Monday, officials from the EU's 27 national governments failed to reach a consensus on whether or not to impose a two-year ban on the neonicotinoids, with 15 voting in favour of the proposal.
Tonio Borg, Health and Consumer Commissioner, said that although a majority of the member states now supports the Commission's proposal, the necessary qualified majority was not reached. As a consequence, the Commission said it will issue only a temporary ban.
"The decision now lies with the Commission. Since our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by EFSA, the Commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks," Borg stated.
NGOs hail 'historic' vote
The European Environment Agency also recently issued a report warning against the consequences of inaction on these chemicals. But pesticide manufacturers and some scientists say no link has been proven between the use of neonicotinoids and a sharp decline in bee numbers in Europe in recent years - a phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder".
Environment NGOs celebrated the vote as a victory.
"After nearly 20 years of fight of beekeepers and environmentalists, this historical vote is a strong signal given by Europe to protect the environment on the long run," Pesticide Action Network Europe said in a statement.
Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero added that the vote makes it "crystal clear" that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban.
"Those countries opposing a ban have failed. Now the Commission must draw the only conclusion possible and immediately halt the use of these pesticides as a first step to protect European food production and ecosystems. Any further delay would mean giving in to the lobbying muscle of Bayer and Syngenta," Contiero said.
Manufacturers slam 'poor' decision
The pesticides industry said the vote demonstrated that EU countries had rejected a proportionate and evidence-based approach and lack of robust scientific basis for the ban.
"We are deeply disappointed by this decision," Friedhelm Schmider, director general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) said.
"Firstly, because independent monitoring studies in a number of EU member states have clearly documented that when used correctly neonicotinoid insecticides have no impact at all on bee populations. Furthermore the process has been hazard-based ignoring the risk-mitigation measures being implemented in member states," Schmider continued.
The ECPA general director added that the scientific basis for the decision is poor as the EFSA evaluation was inclusive and needed to address perceived data gaps better to determine the potential risks.