Environmentalists clash with EFSA over neonicotinoids ban ‘exceptions’

The NGOs sent letters to the executive and EFSA, criticizing the EFSA reports on emergency authorisations of “poor quality”. [Shutterstock]

Environmental NGOs have questioned the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific capacity to grant EU member states emergency authorisations for neonicotinoids, whose usage was recently banned.

They say that some member states are using the “emergency” claim to bypass the ban, while EFSA contends that it is “misleading” to mix emergency authorisations with the decision for a complete ban.

Experts from the member states and the European Commission will discuss on 19 July at the Standing Committee on Plant Animal Food and Feed (PAFF), the latest EFSA reports on the emergency authorisations granted for neonicotinoids in 2017.

Following an EFSA report, which found that most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides (Bayer’s clothianidin and imidacloprid and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam) represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees, the Commission decided on 27 April to impose a complete ban.

But environmental NGOs and beekeepers fear that 13 member states are trying to break the ban, by taking advantage of the “loophole” to grant exceptions to the neonicotinoids restrictions in specific cases of emergency.

“The Juncker Commission wants to be seen as ‘friends of the bees’. But bans on bee-killing pesticides aren’t much use if national governments are allowed to hand out exceptions willy-nilly,” said Greenpeace EU food policy adviser Franziska Achterberg.

Achterberg added that emergency authorisations should only be granted in exceptional circumstances, and “not to allow farmers to simply continue the use of dangerous chemicals that the EU has banned for good reasons”.

The NGOs sent letters to the EU executive and EFSA, criticizing the EFSA reports on emergency authorisations as being of “poor quality”.

The organisations questioned EFSA’s scientific basis in its reports, saying that it had disregarded all non-chemical methods of pest control, independently of their (claimed) feasibility, effectiveness and rate of application.

They also blame EFSA for disregarding all chemical methods other than neonicotinoids, adding that the use of other insecticides, such as pyrethroids, was not taken into consideration.

“The only criteria that EFSA retained to judge whether a banned neonicotinoid needed to be used, was the availability of another neonicotinoid,” the NGOs noted.

The NGOs now want the European Commission to ask EFSA to reconsider its reports and involve external experts in order to “give due consideration to non-chemical methods of pest control”.

“We consider therefore that EFSA does not have the agricultural expertise and experience to assess the complete set of alternative pest-control methods available to farmers, and to decide which ones are feasible in different countries,” they emphasised.

The environmentalists believe that DG SANTE should be involved in the process and withdraw the relevant emergency authorisations if they are insufficient.

Invoking science, Europe shuts the door to neonics

The European Commission decided on Friday (27 April) to impose a complete ban on neonicotinoids, after managing to achieve the necessary qualified majority among EU member states.

EFSA’s spokesperson

Contacted by EURACTIV.com, an EFSA spokesperson said it was “strange” that for some critics EFSA’s science on pesticides is good one day and poor the next.

“All EFSA scientific assessments are based on a thorough evaluation of the available data using transparent scientific methodologies. In this case, EFSA was mandated to use this methodology, which was published in April 2017 far in advance of the results which are now being criticised,” the EFSA official said.

“EFSA has confirmed that neonicotinoids pose risks to bees in its advice published in February 2018. Any attempt to link that advice with the recently published emergency derogations reports is misleading because the scope of the scientific assessments is different,” the spokesperson added.

In April, the industry strongly criticised EFSA’s decision on neonicotinoids, claiming that the decision was not the “right outcome for European farmers or for the environment”. It also questioned EFSA’s scientific conclusions, claiming that neonicotinoids pose a minimum threat to bee health.

“Depending on the outcome, we are either seen as the heroes of science or blamed as incompetent. This kind of cherry-picking does not sound very convincing to me,” EFSA’s executive director Bernhard Url told EURACTIV in an interview.

EFSA boss: EU food law overhaul ‘a big step towards transparency’

The European Commission has learned its lesson from the glyphosate controversy and is coming forward with “bold proposals” on transparency, says Bernhard Url. The raw data of all industry-funded studies related to pesticides will be made publicly available under Commission plans, he told EURACTIV in an interview.

The Commission’ stance

The Commission said it has taken note of EFSA’s report, which will be discussed at the PAFF committee.

“The Commission is at the same time reflecting on the follow-up to be given to this report which it had requested to EFSA,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

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