Au revior, neonicotinoids ... don't let the door hit you on the way out.
If you haven’t yet heard all the buzz (my apologies, couldn’t resist), the European Union announced yesterday a major maneuver geared to protect struggling honeybee populations: a two-year ban on neonicotinoids, a super-ubiquitous class of nicotine-derived pesticides that numerous scientific studies have ID'd as being one of several primary contributors — if not the key contributor —to colony collapse disorder. The restrictions will only be lifted if strong scientific evidence disproving the apiarian-adverse properties of the chemicals emerges.
Despite fierce opposition and pressure from powerful agrochemical giants fearing annual losses in the billions of dollars, restrictions on three types of neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — “for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals” will go into effect on Dec 1, 2013.
In Brussels, 15 EU member states (Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, France, Cyprus, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and agricultural heavyweights Germany and Poland) voted in support of the restrictions while eight member states opposed them including Italy and, most controversially, the U.K. where the grassroots movement to ban the pesticides was perhaps the loudest and most celebrity-ridden (as was the pro-chemical lobbying). Four member states (Ireland, Lithuania, Finland, and Greece) abstained during the appeal committee vote. During an earlier round of voting on the measure, the U.K. had abstained.
Summed up Tonio Borg of Malta, the European Commission's Health and Consumer honcho: “Although a majority of Member States now supports our proposal, the necessary qualified majority was not reached. The decision now lies with the Commission. Since our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the European Food Safety Authority, the Commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks. I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22 billion annually to European agriculture, are protected."
Friends of the Earth’s Andrew Pendleton, by far one of the more vocal campaigners in the crusade against neonicotinoids, appeared mighty pleased with the two-year suspension: "This decision is a significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations. Restricting the use of these pesticides could be an historic milestone on the road to recovery for these crucial pollinators.”
Although a major victory, the landmark decision shouldn’t come as too big of surprise. Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Commission effectively set things into motion when it singled out neonicotinoids as posing an “unacceptable danger” to honeybees, a move that environmental organizations heralded as the “death knell” for the chemical nerve agents. Soon after, two major British home and garden retailers, B&Q and Wickes, announced that they would be yanking consumer gardening products containing neonicotinoids from shelves.
Bayer CropScience, the agrochemical subgroup of German aspirin giant Bayer AG, is a primary manufacturer of both imidacloprid and clothianidin. A spokesperson for the company went into full-on "none-too-pleased" mode yesterday: “Bayer remains convinced neonicotinoids are safe for bees, when used responsibly and properly … clear scientific evidence has taken a back-seat in the decision-making process."
It was pretty much the same message from Swiss biochemical company and thiamethoxam manufacturer, Syngenta: “The proposal is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees. Instead of banning these products, the commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition.”
So what does all this mean for nature’s most prolific pollinators living on this side of the pond, where domesticated bee populations have reached a 50-year low and continue to fall?
As of now, nothing.
As I’ve previously reported, despite continuously mounting pressure from beekeepers and environmental groups, it appears that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a long ways off from banning neonicotinoids in both commercial agriculture applications and in home gardening products, although it does recognize pesticide poisoning as one of the many potential causes of CCD and is currently re-evaluating the insecticide. That evaluation should be completed ... in five years. (Such urgency!)
In the meantime, the EPA is being sued for "its failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides" by a coalition of four beekeeping groups and five environmental and consumer groups including the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Health.
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.