European safety regulators have finally moved against nerve-agent insecticides blamed for a worldwide decline in bee populations, significantly increasing pressure for a UK ban on the chemicals.
In a report published today, the European Food Safety Authority stated for the first time that neonicotinoid use was acceptable, “only…on crops not attractive to honey bees” and that the chemicals pose “a number of risks” to bee health.
The findings add to a growing body of scientific evidence linking the use of neonicotinoid chemicals in agriculture with sharp falls in populations of bees and other pollinators.
Yesterday Defra, which has so far been reluctant to legislate on the insecticide threat to bees, said that it was awaiting the results of its own “extensive research”, which will be considered by the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides.
“If it is concluded that restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids are necessary, they will be brought in,” a Defra spokesman said.
Friends of the Earth called for the Government to “urgently remove” the named chemicals – clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid – from sale in the UK
“We can’t afford to dither when it comes to protecting these key pollinators,” said director Andy Atkins, director of Friends of the Earth. “Ministers must urgently remove these dangerous chemicals from sale, overhaul inadequate pesticide safety tests and ensure farmers have access to safe, effective alternatives to enable them to produce food without harming our bees.”
However, manufacturers were quick to downplay the significance of the EFSA report and claimed that banning the chemicals would have dire consequences for the farming industry.
Bayer, which makes the world’s most widely-used insecticide imidacloprid, warned against “over-interpretation of the precautionary principle” and said “multiple factors” were behind bee colony losses.
In a paper published a day before the EFSA report, the agrichemical industry claimed that banning neonicotinoids could cost the farming industry £620m in lost food production.
The report, by the EU think tank the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture, and funded by Bayer and Syngenta, which makes the neonicotinoid insecticide thiamethoxam, also suggested one million jobs would be lost and the price of food would go up.
Mike Bushell, Principal Scientific Advisor at Syngenta said the EFSA study “focused on highly theoretical risks to bees.”
Dr Chris Hartfield, horticulture advisor to The National Farmers Union said that hasty changes to UK regulations might “do nothing to improve bee health, while compromising the effectiveness of crop production”, but conceded that “improving science” was enabling lawmakers to “identify gaps in current regulatory processes.”
The EFSA report concluded that, due to risk of exposure from pollen and nectar, the use of the three neonicotinoid chemicals was unacceptable on crops attractive to honey bees. The use of the insecticides on crops planted in greenhouses also posed a risk to bees by exposure by dust, the report said.
The report stopped short of recommending a ban on the chemicals but urged further investigation into the risks, particularly to other pollinators such as bumble bees, butterflies and moths, pointing out that the findings only looked at the impact on honey bees.
Bans on some neonicotinoid products have already been introduced in France, Germany and Slovenia.