The EU may impose tougher restrictions on bee-harming pesticides in May 2018. A February report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has confirmed the risk commonly-used neonicotinoid pesticides pose to our key pollinators.
A discussion on 23 March did not result in a vote, and further discussion has twice been postponed. Meanwhile, EU bee mortality rates, worst in UK, Sweden, Finland, Poland, France and Germany, continue to rise. A cross-party group of MEPs wrote to Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on 20 March warning: “Further delay in taking the decision will result in continued exposure of bees and other pollinators to toxins that kill them, with severe consequences for food production”.
While agriculture’s dependence on natural pollinators has increased since the 1960s, pollinators are declining due to various factors including the intensive use of pesticides and herbicides. While 75-90% of global food crops rely on pollinators, more than a third of wild bee and butterfly species face local extinction. 13 UK species of bees have been lost since 1900, with many more endangered.
Neonics act on insects’ central nervous systems, affecting brain function and hindering bees’ ability to forage and pollinate. Last year, the European Commission (EC) proposed banning them outside greenhouses. EFSA analysed 600 research studies in consultation with experts before concluding that “most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees”.
Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam have been forbidden for use on outdoor flowering crops like oilseed rape in the EU since 2013, when a moratorium was declared pending further information. EFSA’s new report has determined that, if used anywhere outdoors, they can be dispersed to other plants in the bees’ broader environment, leading to chronic exposure. Neonics persist in soils, contaminate water streams and can now be found anywhere in the environment, even in the nectar of wild flowers! A Swiss study published last year found neonic residues in 75% of honey samples.
The UN suggests bees together with other wild pollinators like butterflies and midges are worth $235-577bn a year to global food producers. Others have estimated it would cost the UK more than £1.8 bn annually to pollinate its crops by hand. Yet a recent survey of blue chip food companies found many feel there is still insufficient information to justify the business case for acting to protect bees. Gemma Cranston of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership warned that “less than half the companies sampled know which of the raw materials they source depend on pollinators”, suggesting a need for more research. The project team is now working on creating an assessment methodology to help companies take stock. Certification schemes can also play an important role in driving corporate best practice. Among those surveyed, Mars and The Body Shop now say they will seek ways to tackle the issue.
When the EU first introduced its moratorium on neonic use in 2013, the UK opposed the ban, which was nevertheless extended in 2017, pending conclusive evidence of their safety. But, despite repeated requests from British farmers for “emergency” authorisation to use them, the UK now supports tougher restrictions. The EC needs a positive vote from 55% of the Member States representing 65% of EU citizens to implement its proposal, but once approved, an outdoor ban could be in place within months.
Neonicotinoids have now been in use for more than 20 years. Friends of the Earth campaigner Sandra Bell said: “We have been playing Russian roulette with the future of our bees for far too long,” adding, “Other EU countries must now back a tougher ban too.”
Unsurprisingly, the pesticide industry disputes the risk. Sarah Mukherjee, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association, said: “We are disappointed with this [EC] proposal, which seems more of a political judgement than sound science.” A March 2018 report co-published by Bayer (currently in the process of merging with ‘Frankenseed’ producers Monsanto) has identified enzymes in bees that enable them to safely metabolise some neonics. Rothamsted’s Professor Linda Field said: “Each insecticide needs to be considered on its own risks and merits.” But UN experts have declared the industry’s continued insistence that we need to use their pesticides “to feed the world” a myth, calling for a new global convention controlling their use.
Matt Shardlow, chief executive Buglife, is among those hoping the ban will go beyond outdoor use. “There is no way these chemicals should remain on the market,” agrees Martin Dermine of Pesticide Action Network Europe. “PAN Europe will fight with its partners to obtain support for the proposal from a majority of member states.” An Avaaz public petition pushing for a blanket ban has already gathered 4.4m signatures. Campaigners point out that US and Canadian policymakers will look to the EU’s decision.
Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth, said: “Going neonic-free puts farmers more in control of their land instead of having to defer to advice from pesticide companies.”
Show your support for our bees by signing the Avaaz petition, and if you’re in an EU country that’s still prevaricating, write to your representative.