France mulls reintroduction of neonicotinoids, faces backlash from NGOs and Germany

In its plan to support the sugar beet industry, the country's agriculture ministry announced "a legislative amendment this autumn" to grant "under strictly controlled conditions" a "120-day derogation during the sowing period" for seeds coated with neonicotonoids.

Debates are currently well underway in France over the re-authorisation of neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides, to save its sugar beet industry. The issue is causing quite a stir both at home and across the Rhine. EURACTIV France reports.

The issue of the re-authorisation of neonicotinoid insecticides was tackled by France’s national council for ecological transition (NCET) at its back-to-school meeting on Tuesday (1 September), which also included the recently appointed ecological and solidarity transition minister, Barbara Pompili.

Several prominent French environmental organisations subsequently opted to boycott the meeting over the issue, including France Nature Environnement, the League for the protection of birds, and Friends of the Earth.

Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides which are chemically similar to nicotine and target insects. They have come under fire in recent years for contributing to the decline of bees through disrupting their sense of orientation, memory and mode of reproduction.

On 1 September 2018, five neonicotinoid insecticides were officially banned in the country. Environmental associations and MPs who backed the biodiversity law, which included Pompili, the then secretary of state for biodiversity, hailed as a victory.

However, according to Article 53 of European Regulation 1107/2009, EU member states may obtain derogations on the use of these insecticides “because of a danger which cannot be contained by other reasonable means”.

EU Commission to crack down on recalcitrant member states over neonicotinoids

The European Commission will trigger a never-before-used option against two member states over the abuse of so-called “emergency authorisations” for neonicotinoids, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a letter sent to NGOs dated 19 February and seen by EURACTIV.

Unprecedented crisis in key economic sector

The recently-appointed Agriculture and Food Minister, Julien Denormandie, announced  the reintroduction of neonicotinoids at the beginning of August, stressing during a meeting with representatives of the sugar sector that the decision was about “an unprecedented crisis at a time where there is no alternative”.

Embroiled for several months in a crisis, beet producers are calling for help as green aphids, which are vectors the jaundice virus, are infesting beet plantations.

This is resulting in a loss of yield ranging from 30 to 50%.

“For some growers, this year is an economic disaster, with losses of around €1,300 per hectare”, Nicolas Rialland, director of public affairs of the general confederation of beet growers, told EURACTIV France.

The representative of the beet growers’ union also underlined the current deadlock faced by the country’s beet sector.

“The products currently authorised to control aphids have unfortunately not proven to be effective in 2020. Farmers consider themselves without a solution. If some reduce their plots, others risk closing down. It’s a whole sector that is in danger today,” he added.

The sugar sector is a key sector of the French economy as it involves a total of 46,000 jobs, including 25,000 farmers and 21 sugar factories.

To maintain its position as Europe’s leading sugar producer, the French government released its plan to support the sugar beet industry, in which the country’s agriculture ministry announced “a legislative amendment this autumn” to grant “under strictly controlled conditions” a “120-day derogation during the sowing period” for seeds coated with neonicotinoids.

“We hope to find a solution, which would prevent us from using these insecticides, within three to five years. But in the meantime, we simply have no other choice,” said Rialland, noting that these derogations will be granted until 1 July 2023 and thus only be temporary.

“Surrealist back-pedaling”

However, the news of the derogation has faced fierce backlash from environmental organisations.

“This ban placed our country as a precursor in the protection of pollinators,” the country’s agriculture ministry boasted in a statement at the time.

In an interview for Libération, Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, president of the league for the protection of birds, denounced the news that this position would be revised only two years later as “surrealist back-pedalling”, adding to a “yielding of aggressions against nature and regressions”.

Environmentalists clash with EFSA over neonicotinoids ban ‘exceptions’

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.

Germany committed to combating “bee-killing” insecticides

This comeback of neonicotinoids is also a bone of contention across the Rhine.

In its report on the state of neonicotinoid bans in Europe, France’s national union of beekeeping points out that as early as 2009, Germany “adopted restrictive measures against the treatment of straw cereal seeds” with certain types of neonicotinoids.

Following the import of seeds treated with neonicotinoid substances from abroad, Germany also adopted a text in 2015 formally prohibiting the “placing on the market, imports and sowing” of the insecticide.

Faced with the French decision to reintroduce neonicotinoids, Martin Häusling, the Greens’ spokesman for agricultural policy in the European Parliament and a member of the environment committee (ENVI), did not mince his words.

In a letter to Commission Vice-President Franz Timmermanns, the Green MEP called on the Commission to halt France’s ambitions.

“Neonicotinoids are extremely harmful, their use is not banned without reason. France must not be allowed to get away with its request to use them again by means of an ’emergency authorisation’,” he wrote.

Still, Häusling demands greater firmness from the Commission: “The scandalous practice by some member states of using neonicotinoids despite the EU ban through so-called emergency authorisations must stop immediately,” he wrote.

The draft law on the derogation for neonicotinoids will be presented to the Council of Ministers on Wednesday (3 September).

[Edited by Natasha Foote]

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