The EU is supporting a total ban on the three neonicotinoid active ingredients already under restrictions for use on flowering crops. The move follows a scientific review that concluded that the outdoor use of these insecticides harms bees. Manufacturers and trade bodies have criticised the decision, and the fact it was reached before a legal hearing on the validity of the existing restrictions.

The current restrictions, which came into force in December 2013, prevent the use of the three neonicotinoids – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – as granular applications to soils; seed treatments to cereals drilled from January to June; and in seed treatments, soil treatments or foliar applications to flowering crops (except when applied after flowering of the crop).

Member states through the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, meeting last week, supported by qualified majority a European Commission proposal to ban the outdoor use of the three actives altogether, with usage only allowed in permanent greenhouses where no contact with bees is expected. The vote follows updated European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) guidance, published in February, which confirmed the risk neonicotinoids pose to honey bees and wild bees.

The UK voted for the latest Commission proposals. Defra says the decision is science-based and follows advice from the Expert Committee on Pesticides published last October. This would still apply once the UK has left the EU.

 The regulation is expected to become effective from the end of 2018, with Defra envisaging an eight month phase out period, but no information is available as yet on the position of existing stocks of product and treated seeds.

“The Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” noted EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis. “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

The AIC says it is disappointed that a qualified majority was achieved to restrict all outdoor uses of neonicotinoids – it had been lobbying against further restrictions until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had ruled as to whether the current restrictions have a justified legal basis.

Manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta had challenged the 2013 restriction on three grounds:  the basis of insufficient evidence of any serious risk to bee health; using unadopted risk assessment guidance; and taking disproportionate action in the light of the perceived risk identified. The AIC acted as an intervenor in the case. The legal challenge was heard at the ECJ in February 2017 with the General Court due to deliver its judgment on the current restrictions on May 17th 2018.

The EU farm and co-operative body Copa Cogeca adds that there is no justification for the wider ban. “We attach great importance to honeybees and other pollinators at Copa Cogeca as they are very important for crop production and to ensure biodiversity in the EU,” says secretary-general Pekka Pesonen. “Furthermore, as expressed in EFSA’s risk assessment, we understand that these substances may pose a risk for bees. But we are convinced that with the appropriate mitigation measures, these substances could have been re-authorised. This ban will decrease farmers’ toolbox in an area where there are almost no alternatives. It will also jeopardise the livelihoods of many farmers and put our food supplies at risk.”  

Bayer says that the loss of neonicotinoid seed treatments will be particularly difficult for European sugar beet growers.  “The decision by EU member states is a bad deal for the European agricultural sector and the environment, and one that will not improve the lot of bees or other pollinators,” says the company. “It will further reduce European farmers’ ability to tackle important pests, for many of which there are no alternative treatments available. Bayer remains convinced that the restrictions are not warranted, because neonicotinoids are safe when used in accordance with the label instructions.”

Bayer adds that the EFSA bee risk assessment reports did not find high risks for many neonicotinoid uses where a definitive risk conclusion could be drawn; says it is surprised that, once again, legislative measures are being implemented without a prior thorough impact assessment; and questions the timing of the decision before the verdict of the ongoing court case over the legal basis of the 2013 restrictions is known.

The manufacturer also warns of unintended consequences – “beyond the costs for European farmers, the existing restrictions in place have led to more spray applications, leading to more CO2 emissions; an increased risk of resistant pest insects; and a return to older, less-effective chemicals.”

Syngenta calls the decision “disappointing, but not unexpected”.  It “does not believe the decision is the right outcome for European farmers or for the environment. The evidence clearly shows that neonicotinoids pose a minimum threat to bee health compared to a lack of food, diseases and cold weather.

“The Commission’s reliance on an unapproved regulatory document – the Bee Risk Guidance Document – in order to propose a further ban of neonicotinoids is not sound and will not address the challenges we face in ensuring safe and reliable food supply while also taking care of the environment. In fact, the Bee Risk Guidance Document is so conservative and so far removed from the reality of agriculture that its application would see most, if not all agricultural chemicals banned, including for example, those used in organic agriculture.”

Rather, Syngenta says “by constantly improving chemistry and developing products such as neonicotinoids, we can help farmers continue to protect their crops from insects and weeds, while minimizing the impact on the environment and on human health.”

Both manufacturers stress their work to improve pollinator numbers and health through better habitat provision, foraging options and disease control.