The EU ban on neonicotinoids is a perfect opportunity for European and UK authorities to build a robust and sustainable farming model which promotes the value of the honey bee.
To Owen Paterson’s extreme disappointment, European honey bees finally had something to celebrate on Sunday, as a partial EU ban on three key pesticides, thought to be toxic to bees, was enforced.
These pesticides – thiamethoxam (produced by Syngenta), imidacloprid and clothianidin (produced by Bayer) – are neonicotinoids.
They are derived from nicotine and act on insects’ nervous systems. Bees are exposed to them through contaminated pollen, nectar, dust and water.
After three scientific opinions by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) warning that the pesticides posed “high acute” risks for bees, the European Commission decided in May to limit their use.
This was despite the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, being “very active” in opposing the partial ban.
The coalition government’s own study backing up its defence of neonicotinoids was heavily criticised by the EFSA for “several weaknesses”. In the end, 15 EU countries backed the Commission’s plan for a partial ban.
While the partial ban is in itself progress – in as far as it acknowledges the role played by neonicotinoids in bee decline – it will not be sufficient to allow bee recovery.
Firstly, it contains too many exemptions: the pesticides can still be used in greenhouses and on several crops which are not considered to attract bees. Treatments are also allowed once the crops’ flowering period is over.
Secondly, the ban completely ignores other pollinators, such as bumble bees.
Thirdly, the ban ignores other pesticides, such as chlorpyriphos, cypermethrin and deltamethrin, that have also been identified as harmful to bees.
By banning some but not all of the chemical contributors to bee decline, the EU cannot hope to collect good data about their effects on bees, or to allow bee populations space to recover.
The three neonicotinoids will continue to accumulate in the environment, thanks to the vast panoply of exemptions under the EU ban.
The persistence of these chemicals in soil and in water, their interaction with other factors implicated in bee decline (such as parasites and disease), and the lack of effective monitoring will also mean that the neonicotinoids ban will not be sufficient to save them.
The EU should close the gaps, make the ban on these toxic chemicals complete and extend it to the other relevant pesticides.
In its place, Europe could build a new farming model that is more robust, sustainable and allows farmers to work with, instead of against, bees.
As bees face their biggest challenge in millions of years, their role in agriculture has been brought into sharper focus.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, bees and other pollinators are responsible for one third of all food produced. Their decline is a major threat to farming.
The EU ban is a valuable opportunity for European and UK authorities to scale-up non-chemical pest management alternatives and invest in research.
The UK government would better focus its efforts in moving that process forward and create a long-lasting farming model which promotes the humble bee.
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