EU members back ban on insecticides to protect honey bees

Neonicotinoids can now only be used in greenhouses

Campaign group Friends of the Earth described the decision of EU governments a ‘tremendous victory’ for bees and for the environment. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Campaign group Friends of the Earth described the decision of EU governments a ‘tremendous victory’ for bees and for the environment. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

 

A near-total ban on bee-harming pesticides is set to come into force across Europe by the end of the year, in a move welcomed by environmental groups.

Neonicotinoids are the most widely-used class of insecticides in the world, but concerns about their impact on honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators have been confirmed by many scientific studies.

EU member states voted by qualified majority for a permanent ban on the outdoor use of three types of “neonicotinoid” pesticides after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority confirmed in February the risk they posed to bees. The move was supported by Ireland and the UK.

Since 2013, use of three of these pesticides was already restricted in the EU on crops such as oilseed rape, because of concerns that they have “sub-lethal” effects such as harming the bees’ ability to forage and form colonies. But they could still be used on sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

Endorsement of proposals by the European Commission to completely ban these three active substances, means they can only be used in greenhouses.

‘Beacon of hope’

Antonia Staats, senior campaigner with the environmental group Avaaz, which led a petition backed by five million signatures to ban the chemicals, said: “Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees. Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.”

Emi Murphy, bee campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “This a major victory for science, common sense and our under-threat bees.”

There was strong reaction against the decision in the UK. Guy Smith, deputy president of the UK National Farmers’ Union, said: “This decision doesn’t change the fact that farmers will continue to face challenges to maintain sustainable and productive cropping systems, and the pest problems that neonicotinoids helped farmers tackle have not gone away.”

He warned that without the pesticides many crops grown would become less viable and could lead to increased imports of food. “There is a real risk that these restrictions will do nothing measurable to improve bee health, while compromising the effectiveness of crop protection.”

Challenged

Chemical companies Bayer and Syngenta challenged the 2013 partial ban at the European Court of Justice claiming there was insufficient evidence of any serious risk to bee health. A verdict is due on May 17th.

Jane Stout, professor of botany at Trinity College, Dublin, who repeatedly highlighted the damage being caused to bees and pollinators from “neonics”, welcomed the outcome but warned that replacement chemicals could drench the countryside in persistent insect poisons.

“The ban is a testament to the importance of scientific research. Five years ago Ireland voted against banning neonics because there was insufficient evidence (in its view) - so after intensive research that created the evidence base - now have reversed that decision,” she told The Irish Times.

“I’m glad that this has happened but concerned that we don’t just replace neonics with something just as harmful. It’s not just bees under threat but the whole system.”