Heads up, pollinators of the world: Now would be a great time to take that European vacation you’ve always dreamed of. The European Commission — the E.U.’s governing body — voted on Monday to implement a continent-wide ban on the class of insecticides widely suspected of contributing to colony collapse disorder, the mysterious phenomenon that’s been decimating bee populations since 2006.
In January, the European Food Safety Authority warned that three types of neonicotinoid pesticides should be considered unacceptable for use based on their danger to bees. A growing body of scientific evidence has found that, while neonics can’t be blamed directly for colony collapse disorder, they do mess with bees’ navigation, foraging, and communication abilities, throw off their reproductive patterns, and weaken their immune systems, leaving colonies more vulnerable to natural threats like mites and fungi. Neonics are the world’s most ubiquitous pesticides, used extensively on major crops like corn, soy, and canola. They’re applied to seeds before planting and then show up in the pollen bees come to collect.
Three neonics — thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and imidacloprid — will be banned for two years from use on crops bees pollinate, likely starting in December. From the BBC:
There was ferocious lobbying both for and against in the run-up to Monday’s vote, the BBC’s Chris Morris reports from Brussels.
Nearly three million signatures were collected in support of a ban. …
Chemical companies and pesticide manufacturers have been lobbying just as hard — they argue that the science is inconclusive, and that a ban would harm food production.
A study funded by major chemical manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer CropScience asserts that “If Neonicotinoid seed treatment were no longer available in Europe, there would be a significant reduction of food production,” and estimates that “over a 5-year period, the EU could lose up to €17bn [$22.3 billion].” On the other hand, 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators, “accounting for an annual value of 153 billion Euros [$200 billion],” according to a 2012 study in the journal Ecotoxicology that reviewed 15 years of research on neonicotinoids’ effects on bees. With bee populations declining at an average annual rate of about 30 percent, I’d say the odds point to a neonic ban as a risk worth taking.
Experts agree. From The Guardian:
Prof Simon Potts, a bee expert at the University of Reading, said: “The ban is excellent news for pollinators. The weight of evidence from researchers clearly points to the need to have a phased ban of neonicotinoids. There are several alternatives to using neonicotinoids and farmers will benefit from healthy pollinator populations as they provide substantial economic benefits to crop pollination.” …
The chemical industry has warned that a ban on neonicotinoids would lead to the return of older, more harmful pesticides and crop losses. But campaigners point out that this has not happened during temporary suspensions in France, Italy and Germany and that the use of natural pest predators and crop rotation can tackle problems.
The U.K. opposed the ban. The country’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, “has said restrictions on the use of pesticides should not be introduced lightly, and the idea of a ban should be dropped,” according to the BBC.
Efforts to ban neonics in the U.S. have gone absolutely nowhere. Last summer, the EPA rejected a petition to stop the sale of clothianidin, one of the pesticides that the E.U. is now banning. Clothianidin has been on the market since 2003, despite the fact that a leaked memo revealed that EPA scientists found a Bayer-produced study of the pesticide’s effects inadequate. EPA now plans to complete its evaluation of neonicotinoid safety in 2018.
Here’s hoping the E.U.’s landmark ban forces action on this side of the pond.
Get Grist in your inbox