The EU’s highest court has ruled that the European Commission was entitled to restrict the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides linked with bee decline after an attempt to overturn the decision from the agrochemical company Bayer.
The plant protection products in question – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – belong to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine and target insects.
They have come under fire in recent years for contributing to the decline of bees by disrupting their sense of orientation, memory and mode of reproduction.
The European Commission moved to impose restrictions on the use of these pesticides on bee-attractive crops back in 2013.
In 2018, Bayer, as the producer of the pesticides, filed an appeal on the ground that such ban could have “far-reaching consequences” for the certainty and predictability of active substance approvals in the EU.
However, the Court of Justice of the EU confirmed on Thursday (6 May) that the Commission was within its rights to ban the use of neonicotinoids on bee-attractive crops and that, in case of uncertainty, it is also entitled to make such restrictions.
“It must be held that the arguments put forward by Bayer CropScience cannot, in any event, succeed,” the court ruling said.
The Luxembourg-based court also confirmed that the EU executive was entitled to make use of the recent findings of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), despite not yet being validated by EU member states, and that any new scientific and technical information should be considered in order to review the approval of a pesticide.
The Court also ruled that Bayer should pay legal costs incurred by environmental groups who defended the decision.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a representative for Bayer said that although the company respects the European legislative process and accepts the decision of EU member states to restrict the use of certain neonicotinoids in agriculture, it is “disappointed that the merits of this case were not recognised by the court”.
By appealing against the verdict, Bayer aimed to ensure that some general interpretations of the crop protection law established by the court are re-considered, the company representative explained.
“With this verdict, unfortunately, this will not be the case,” they said, adding that the verdict “seems to allow the Commission almost carte blanche to review existing approvals upon the slightest evidence, which need not even be new scientific data”.
Campaigners welcome the ruling
Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, one of the campaign group that presented arguments to the court in defence of the ban, celebrated the ruling as a confirmation of the Commission’s right to restrict the use of neonicotinoids after having supported this position in an eight-year-long legal work.
“The industry and several pesticide-friendly member states keep pushing to delay decisions to restrict toxic pesticides in Europe, on the ground that new guidances are not agreed upon by EU member states,” said Martin Dermine, a policy officer at PAN Europe.
He added that the Court has confirmed that any new scientific work may be used to ban a pesticide.
According to him, the decision will certainly give more margin of manoeuvre to both EFSA and the Commission to speed up the ban on the most toxic pesticides, using the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, since it can take up to between 10 and 15 years for member states to agree to tighten the rules for pesticides evaluations.
“More than that, the Court confirms the definition of the precautionary principle: in case of doubts on the toxicity of a pesticide, the European Commission is entitled to ban it,” he added.
Greenpeace EU legal strategist Andrea Carta said the ruling has “reaffirmed that protecting nature and people’s health takes precedence over the narrow economic interests of powerful multinationals and that the precautionary principle is a cornerstone of EU law”.
“This means the EU has a responsibility and the power to ensure the safety of all pesticides, chemicals, GM crops and other dangerous products and substances,” she said.
Bayer reiterated that it stood by the safety of its products, pointing out that these have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide, and stressed again the “value that these products have for farmers in managing pests effectively”.
As such, the company will continue to offer its imidacloprid and clothianidin product portfolio in all other regions, where “appropriate risk mitigation measures are applied to ensure that products are used safely and effectively without adverse effects on people or the environment,” they said.
The use of neonicotinoid pesticides remains a contentious issue.
Recently, several governments, including France, have granted temporary exemptions that allow the use of these banned pesticides.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]