National experts from EU states are today (15 March) poring over details of a new text on the proposed two-year ban on pesticides linked to catastrophic bee colony collapses, as the EU struggles to sign off on the measure.
Countries such as the United Kingdom have set out a stall against the proposed ban – despite opinion polls showing that 71% of Britons support it – but they will need to persuade at least a third of EU states to join them to block the law.
Frédéric Vincent, a spokesman for EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, told EURACTIV that the Commission had amended the planned prohibition after taking into account “complaints, requests and concerns” raised by member states.
“The overall idea is still to ban them but then you have variations on the ban,” he said. “It depends on the type of plant, the season, how the pesticides in question are being used, and whether [the neo-nicitinoid] is in seeds or not.”
EURACTIV understands that the EU's new text pushes the proposed ban back to 31 December 2014 and only applies it to winter crops from January to June, although such seed planting takes place at other times of year. The ban would also cover the domestic/household use of neo-nicitinoids.
A definition of ‘winter cereals’ has been added to the legislation. Aubergines, tomatoes, and potatoes have been removed from the affected crop list, while chestnuts and hazelnuts have been included.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been named as one of the bodies responsible for ongoing risk assessments but data gaps in the system are to be filled by industry bodies instead.
As a result of the balance of concessions, Portugal, Malta and Slovenia are expected to shift from abstention to supporting the ban. If they are joined by Germany, whose environment and agriculture ministries appear divided on the issue, the EU could exhale.
The legislation will require a two-thirds majority in the vote at the Commission’s standing committee on the food chain and animal health.
A giant bee in Brussels
In a last-ditch bid to influence the vote, the online activist group Avaaz erected a giant inflatable bee in the square opposite the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday [14 March], drawing attention to their petition calling for a ban, which was signed by 2.5 million people.
“It is judgment day and the EU states have a choice,” Avaaz’s senior campaigns officer Iain Keith told EURACTIV. “Do we throw bees a lifeline and give ourselves more time to get clear, independent advice for the use of the precautionary principle, or do we send very many bees to a chemical Armageddon?”
Keith, who formerly worked as a UNDP official, said that the group’s petition had catalysed a “groundswell of public support” that reflected wider concerns about unsustainable environmental practices. This in turn, had emboldened public officials in Brussels, he said.
The EU’s precautionary principle, enshrined in the Union’s founding treaty, obliges it to act where sufficient doubt about environmental or health risks is scientifically established.
An EFSA report earlier this year found that the three pesticides identified in the EU legislation posed “high acute risks” to pollinators.
WTO hornet’s nest
The EU has already notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) of its intent to ban the three chemicals – clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid – and industry sources privately say that a case will almost certainly be mounted.
Commission officials dismiss such talk but the EU’s letter of notification to the WTO, which EURACTIV has seen, specifies that the action is not being taken under any relevant international standard.
“If countries identify a standard they are a bit less likely to be challenged in the WTO, than if they set their own standards,” a trade official told EURACTIV. “If they say they are using ‘higher standards’ there has to be a scientific justification for that.”
“It is up to member to decide whether they want to challenge this measure,” she added. “If they don’t think it is in line with WTO rules, they can use the disputes system.”
The issue could be raised in a triannual meeting of the WTO’s sanitary and phytosanitary measures committee, which is scheduled to begin on 21 March.
Pesticide manufacturers and their associations did not respond to requests for comment.
But Germany's Bayer, one of the biggest companies involved, has previously slammed the EU’s mooted ban as a “draconian proposal”.
“The company believes that the Commission’s overly conservative interpretation of the precautionary principle is a missed opportunity to achieve a fair and proportional solution,” a group statement said following the EU’s launch of the legislation.
“Any disproportionate action would jeopardise the competitiveness of European agriculture and finally lead to higher costs for food, feed, fiber and renewable raw materials and have an enormous economic impact throughout the whole food chain,” it said.
The company continues to advocate the “responsible use” of neonicotinoid-containing products which have been utilised by farmers for many years.
However, among the protestors outside the European Parliament yesterday, Anne Van Eeckhout, a Belgian beekeeper, told EURACTIV that she had lost five of her six beehives in last year’s winter.
She said: “Between October and March, my bees just disappeared which is a kind of colony collapse disaster, and one of the reasons is pesticides. There are fields and agricultural areas very close to where my bees are.”
“When I started beekeeping 13 years ago, I hadn’t heard of anyone losing three quarters of their bee colonies in the winter,” she continued, “the average loss was around 10% of the bees per year. Now a 30% loss is considered normal.”