A majority of EU countries have supported a European Commission proposal to temporarily ban three pesticides suspected of harming bees in a vote on Monday (29 April).
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.
French agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll commented:
"I welcome this moratorium on neonicotinoids at European level, which is the sole one permitting an effective protection of bees while preserving the competitiveness of French farmers in relation to their European colleagues."
In the European Parliament, the chairman of the Environment committee, German MEP Matthias Groote (Socialists & Democrats) welcomed the decision:
"When the scientific evidence is there, it is for us parliamentarians to take our responsibilities. The Environment committee helped to spark action at EU level."
Chris Davies, a British Liberal MEP, also supported the Commission decision. He said:
“There is enough evidence that neonicotinoids could be causing the catastrophic decline in bee numbers to warrant at least a temporary suspension in their use. Bees and other wild pollinators are worth €22 billion per year to the European agricultural sector and we can’t keep taking risks with crop production like this. The European Commission has rightly stepped in with decisive action where Member States are in disarray."
Belgian MEP and Green environment and food safety spokesperson Bart Staes applauded the Commission:
"I applaud the the European Commission to defend the general interest in this case. The Commission is fully justified in its duty to follow the precautionary principle to protect the long term interests of the whole of society and the environment and not just the short term business model of the agro-chemical industry, which relies on farmer dependency and input-heavy agriculture."
"We now have support for a ban, and I welcome this decision. Bees play a key part in our food chain, and face an alarming decline. However, precise data is still lacking. We shall now try to understand how exactly neonicotinoids affect the behaviour of bees. We shall also keep in mind that neonicotinoids are not the only threat bees face" the Belgian MEP added.
Swiss biotech company Syngenta condemned the Commission's decision, saying it is based on poor science.
Syngenta Chief Operating Officer, John Atkin, said: “The European Commission has again failed to win the necessary support for its proposed ban on this vital technology. The proposal is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees. Instead of banning these products, the Commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition.”
Syngenta claims the ban was triggered by "a hurried and highly theoretical review by EFSA", which "made fundamental mistakes including a serious over-estimation of the amount of pesticide bees are exposed to in the field". It said the Commission "also ignored key studies and independent monitoring, including recent data from the UK Government, which found no evidence that neonicotinoids impact bee health".
Greenpeace bees campaign coordinator Matthias Wüthrich commented: "Bee decline is one of the most obvious and visible effects of a failed industrial farming model, which contaminates our environment and destroys farmers' smartest natural ally - pollinators. European policymakers should shift funding away from chemical-intensive agriculture and promote ecological farming."
- May 2013: European Commission to table legal text to temporarily ban the three neonicotinoids.