On Friday 27th April, member states of the EU moved to support the ban of outdoor agricultural uses of three important neonicotinoid pesticides, due to concerns surrounding their harmful effects on bees and other pollinators. This decision followed the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) publication in February of a set of key reports that concluded these pesticides presented an unacceptable risk to wild and honeybee populations.
Neonicotinoids, or neonics, encompass a family of pesticides that were developed in the 1980s to be highly effective against insect pests, but harmless to other species, targeting unique elements of an insect’s nervous system. The three neonicotinoids affected by the new ban – imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothiandin – account for almost all of the neonicotinoid pesticides used in the UK. In 2016, all three were restricted from use on crops especially attractive to bees in 2013 – a decision that prompted legal action by Bayer and Syngenta, two leading global manufacturers of neonics. However, April’s decision represents one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging controls on the use of these pesticides.
Interest in the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, especially bees, developed in the mid-2000s and has more recently become the subject of a great deal of public attention and debate. One highly publicised study from 2017 found that honey sampled from around the world contained a cocktail of neonicotinoids. A second study examined neonic effects across Hungary, the UK, and Germany, and reported that bees were less able to survive and produce new colonies when exposed to the pesticides at field-realistic doses. Despite mounting evidence of the harmful effects of neonics, the UK government remained in support of their use until the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove MP, also announced in late 2017 the intention of the UK government to back the proposed ban. Bayer and Syngenta criticised the ban, describing it in their press releases as “a sad day for farmers” and “[taking] European farming in the wrong direction.” They stated that current scientific evidence indicated that neonics are far less harmful to bee populations than other hazards such as the climate or disease, and criticised the EFSA report as “over-conservative.” The UK’s National Farmers Union made a similar statement, calling on the British government to work to mitigate the impacts of the ban to avoid damage to the UK farming industry.
Critics of the ban have also drawn attention to a range of potential challenges posed by the ban – from the obvious potential for impacts on crop yields, to suggestions that the loss of the relatively selective neonicotinoids will force farmers to resort to older, less discriminate pesticides. Syngenta have further criticised the decision as being based on unapproved guidance material, while Bayer suggested their ongoing legal action against the EU’s 2013 partial ban should have forestalled further action.
However, environmental groups have lauded the ban, with Buglife (The Invertebrate Conservation Trust) calling it a “red letter day for the continent’s pollinators.” However, they also noted that neonic residues in the earth and water may continue to harm pollinators for years to come, due in part to the use of neonics in pet flea treatments, which are not covered by the ban!