The EU has launched a rescue plan for Europe’s dwindling honeybee colonies: a 24-month ban on three widely-used neonicitinoid pesticides that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says pose “high acute risks” to pollinators.
“We are requesting that member states suspend for two years the use of these [neonicitonoid] pesticides on seeds, granular atom sprays and for crops that attract bees – sunflower, maize, rape and cotton,” Frédéric Vincent, a spokesman for the EU health commissioner, Tonio Borg, told a press conference on Thursday (31 January).
The EU's proposals are based on an EFSA finding that the three seed-coating treatments – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – could potentially harm bees where they are attracted to crops, or exposed to pesticide dust or guttation fluid.
Around 16% of Europe’s honeybee colonies disappeared between 1985 and 2005 – with greater losses recorded in England, the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden – according to the EU-funded Status and Trends of European Pollinators (STEP) project.
Insects such as honey bees and wild bees help pollinate around 84% of Europe’s 264 crop species and 4,000 vegetable varieties, contributing an estimated €22 billion to the EU's economy, STEP says.
Strong public feelings
Public feelings are running high on the issue, with more than two million people signing an online petition by the activist group Avaaz calling for an immediate and open-ended ban in the three days leading up to yesterday’s announcement.
“These are proportionate measures, giving member states two years to see if (the two-year suspension) is working and then we’ll see if we need to review the legislation,” said Vincent.
A vote on the two-year ban is now planned at an EU expert committee later this month. The Commission hopes to have a proposal ready by March, which could be writ in law by 1 July 2013.
Environmentalists welcomed the news, with Friends of the Earth’s Bee spokesman, Andrew Pendleton, calling it a “hugely significant first step on the road to turning around the decline of our bees.”
Agricultural unions, however, said they were worried about the potential costs. “As farming communities, we know the added value of bees as pollinators – and we need these workers,” said Arnaud Petit, commodities director at Copa-Cogeca, which represents European farmers and farm cooperatives.
“At the same time if we have a drastic ban from the Commission, it will be the livestock sector that pays the price and it is one that we cannot afford,” he told EURACTIV.
EU member states: 'A kind of doubletalk'
Much will now depend on the attitude of EU member states to the proposed ban. Following a meeting of the bloc's agricultural ministers on 28 January, Commissioner Borg was ebullient, declaring that it was time for “swift and decisive action”.
But EU officials privately complain of “a kind of doubletalk” by Spain and other countries at the Agricultural Council slowing action behind the scenes.
“Even the UK’s agriculture minister said that ‘it’s a very interesting proposal but we have another UK study coming up and maybe we could get more data,’” one EU source told EURACTIV.
“Some member states say, ‘oh we like honeybees a lot’, but when it comes to doing something publicly, it’s suddenly difficult,” he added.
Last June, France withdrew approval for Sygenta’s neonicitinoid Cruiser pesticide, which is used to treat rapeseed crops, over fears about the effects on bees. Germany, Slovenia and the Netherlands have also introduced pesticide restrictions.
Stéphane Le Foll, France's agriculture minister, issued a statement saying he "welcomed" the Commission's announcement, which was "in line" with the decision to withdraw the authorisation for Cruiser.
At the EU level, a precautionary principle in the Union’s founding treaty obliges it to act where sufficient doubt about environmental or health risks is scientifically established, as the EFSA report has now done to the EU’s satisfaction.
But pesticide makers and users say that the proposed ban could cost the EU economy €17 billion over a five-year period, and trigger at least 50,000 job losses.
They point to a report by the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture, funded by Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta, which found “no scientific evidence that neonicotinoid seed treatment is primarily responsible for the decline in bee populations,” instead pointing to disease, viruses and a loss of habitat as the most likely causes.
EU officials dispute the accuracy of the study’s findings. A 2010 report on global honeybee colony disorders by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), for example, found that the three pesticides singled out by the EU “can potentially cause toxic chronic exposure to non-target pollinators” such as honeybees.
Laboratory tests showed that the chemicals used could disrupt the insects sense of direction, impair memory and brain metabolism, and cause mortality, the UNEP paper said.
Petit, though, called for the Commission to review monitoring data that it had undertaken when the substances were approved for market licenses.
“We’d like to see what information they may have from the monitoring system, and see if the potential risk is a real one at the field level,” he said.
At least one theoretical claim in the Bayer report, which Copa-Cogeca also supported, has been flatly queried by EU scientists.
The Bayer paper said that banning the three pesticides would outsource 3.3 million hectares of arable land needed to grow substitute crops, causing an additional 600 million tones of CO2 emissions, with a carbon market equivalent value of up to €15 billion.
But a scientist at the EU’s Joint Research Centre contacted by EURACTIV sent on data showing that if the same methodology used to create this figure were applied to crop-based biofuels, ethanol would have a CO2 equivalent of 200 grams per megajoule, higher than any known biofuel or fossil fuel.