British environment secretary Owen Patterson complained he was under "cyber-attack" in the run-up to an EU decision on whether to ban insecticides deemed dangerous to bees. He was being flooded with pro-ban emails instigated by international campaigners Avaaz.
Ministers and EU officials were also being lobbied by Bayer, Syngenta and the European Crop Protection Association, the umbrella group for pesticide manufacturers, and given briefing papers claiming the science was uncertain and more research was needed.
In the end, following two inconclusive votes – in which Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney initially opposed a ban and later abstained – the European Commission used its reserve power to prohibit the use of neonicotinoids ("neo-nics") for a trial period of two years.
Neonicotinoids attack the central nervous system of insects. They are absorbed by all parts of a plant, including the pollen and nectar, and "ingested continually by bees and other pollinating insects", said Grace Maher of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association.
One of the key concerns is whether "neo-nics" are implicated in colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon of bees abandoning their hives en masse, as claimed in a 2012 study by scientists at Harvard University's school of public health.
When the issue first came before the standing committee on food chain and animal health on March 15th, 13 member states voted in favour of a ban, nine voted against and five abstained. By April 29th, those in favour rose to 15, with eight against and four abstentions.
The commission justified its action on the basis of a European Food Safety Authority report that identified a “high acute risk” to honeybees from three of the most widely used neonicotinoid-based pesticides: Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam.
Bayer disputed the findings, maintaining that the report “overstates the risks to honeybees” while Syngenta took exception to a press release describing the risks as unacceptable, requesting the authority to change it and threatening legal action if it did not comply.
Backing the decision to go for a ban, EU health and consumer affairs commissioner Tonio Borg said: "I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22 billion annually to European agriculture, are protected."
In Ireland, a 2008 report for the Department of the Environment noted that “bees have an important, and often critical, role in the pollination of many horticultural and fruit crops”, and put a nominal value of this “ecosytem service” to the economy at €53 million a year.
That is why the Irish Wildlife Trust branded Mr Coveney’s initial vote against the ban as “yet another blow to Ireland’s already tarnished ‘green’ image” and wanted to know whether it had been influenced by “representations from special interest groups”, such as Bayer.
A Freedom of Information request showed that Mr Coveney’s department had received “information and/or correspondence” from Bayer.
Dr Julian Little, the head of communications at Bayer's Bee Care Centre, said it was "entirely reasonable and appropriate for Bayer as a manufacturer of these products to point out to all governments, including the Irish one, what our views are of how the commission's proposed ban would impact on European (including Irish) agriculture". He noted the restrictions would "impact mainly on three bee-attractive crops": oilseed rape, sunflowers and maize.
In reply to a question from Clare Daly (Ind) on April 16th, the Minister said he had opposed the proposed ban because it sought to "go beyond" the authority's findings and "ignores the principle of subsidiary" by taking decision-making powers from member states.
“I also had some technical concerns with the proposal, including the proposed prohibition for use on some crops that are not attractive to bees [such as rapeseed] and the proposed prohibition for use on crops based on the time of year that they would be sown,” Mr Coveney said.