EU targets another insecticide linked to decline in bee population

Tonio Borg.JPG

The European Union added a pesticide made by German chemical firm BASF to its blacklist of substances suspected of playing a role in declining bee populations.

EU governments banned the use of agricultural insecticide fipronil to treat maize and sunflower seeds, the European Commission said on Tuesday (16 July).

The restrictions take effect from 31 December but seeds which have already been treated can be sown until the end of February 2014.

The ban follows similar EU curbs imposed in April on three of the world's most widely used pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, and reflects growing concern in Europe over a recent plunge in the population of honeybees critical to crop pollination and production.

A scientific assessment from the European Food Safety Authority said in May that fipronil posed an "acute risk to honeybees when used as a seed treatment for maize".

Fipronil, mainly sold under the Regent brand name in Europe, may still be used on seeds sown in greenhouses, or leeks, shallots, onions and other vegetables that are harvested before they flower, posing a low risk to foraging bees.

BASF said in a statement it disagreed with the decision and remained convinced the decline in bee numbers was due to other factors.

"We will support the European Commission in the development of extensive measures that can benefit bees while securing food production in Europe. We do not believe that the planned restriction of fipronil uses will accomplish that," said Jürgen Oldeweme of BASF's Crop Protection division.

In a vote on Tuesday in the EU's standing committee on the food chain and animal health (SCFCAH), the ban was backed by 23 member states, with three abstentions. Spain and Romania – where fipronil is used commercially – opposed the measures.

Scientists are divided on the part played by pesticides such as neonicotinoids in the sharp decline in bee numbers in Europe in recent years – a phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder".

The European Commission says pesticides are one of several factors which may be responsible, along with parasites, diseases and shrinking habitats.

"Today's agreement with member states … marks another significant step in realising the Commission's overall strategy to tackling Europe's bee decline," Tonio Borg, the EU’s health commissioner, said in a statement.

Unlike the banned neonicotinoids, fipronil is not widely used in Europe, with only three other EU countries currently using it for maize production besides Spain and Romania, the Commission said.

Martin Dermine, the European honey bee project coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network, a campaign group, said: “Banning systemic pesticides is a very good means to improve bees’ health all across Europe since  the beginning of massive honey bee colonies die-offs appeared with the use of this sort of insecticides."

"Nevertheless, use in greenhouses will still be authorised although data show that surface waters surrounding greenhouses are highly contaminated by systemic pesticides. This induces toxicity to aquatic insects and insects that rely on surface water to reproduce. In the same way, minor uses such as leek or onions seed coating will remain authorised. This will contaminate soils and may be toxic to soil-nesting insects. Thus biodiversity is not fully protected.”

The EU-funded STEP project recommends several ways farmers can protect bee populations:

  • Try to avoid those pesticides known to have negative impacts on bees;
  • Reduce the use of herbicides which suppress flowering plants;
  • Leave uncultivated flower rich patches in farmland where pollinators can benefit from flowers and nesting resources;
  • Plant mass-flowering crops (oilseed, clover and field beans) as part of rotations to provide extra nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.
  • 1 Jan. 2014: Ban on agricultural insecticide fipronil takes effect in the EU

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