Wild species such as honey bees are believed to be responsible for the pollination of around a third of the world’s crops, and contribute billions of dollars each year to the global economy. However, there has been widespread concern about their rapid decline, which has been blamed on a number of factors, including habitat loss, disease and the use of insecticides.
Neonicotinoids are nicotine-like chemicals which are toxic to insects and which have been widely used as pesticides for more than a decade. They are usually applied to seeds, and are taken up by all parts of the growing plant, including its pollen and nectar.
Although less harmful than some of the pesticides they replaced, neonicotinoids have been blamed for contributing to bee declines, with a number of studies showing harmful effects on bee behaviour and survival. The combined effects of more than one pesticide have also been shown to put bumblebee colonies at risk.
However, many farmers and chemical companies argue that the science is inconclusive and the studies do not necessarily reflect field conditions, and that a ban on these pesticides would harm food production.
There has been intense lobbying by both sides in the run-up to today’s vote, with nearly 3 million signatures collected in support of a ban, and campaigners rallying in London last Friday to call for action.
A previous vote by the EU on whether to ban the chemicals was inconclusive, so the European Commission went to an appeals committee. Fifteen countries have now voted in favour of a ban, while eight voted against, including the UK, and four abstained. Although not a large majority, this was enough for the Commission to put in place a two-year ban on neonicotinoids.
After the vote, the EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said, “I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion Euros ($29 billion) annually to European agriculture, are protected.”
More to be done for bees
Speaking about the vote, Andrew Pendleton of Friends of the Earth said, “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.”
The new ban will prohibit the sale and use of seeds treated with neonicotinoids, and will also prohibit the sale of these chemicals to amateur growers. However, it will not apply to crops that are non-attractive to bees, or to crops that are grown over winter.
Some have warned that the ban could lead to the return of older, more harmful pesticides. However, supporters say that this has not happened in countries that have already banned the chemicals, and that the use of more natural methods of pest control can tackle any problems.
“Few people would disagree that we need to protect our food production, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of damaging the environment. Indeed, there are several alternatives to using neonicotinoids, and other pesticides, and this a great opportunity for farmers to adopt these practices to protect bees and other pollinators,” said Professor Simon Potts, a scientist at the University of Reading.
“A short-term decision to keep using harmful products may be convenient, but will almost certainly have much greater long-term costs for food production and the environment,” he said.
Although the ban is good news for bees, these important pollinators still face a number of other threats, and more still needs to be done to protect them. A monitoring programme will also be needed to assess the effects of the two-year ban on bees and other pollinating insects.
Read more on this story at BBC News – Bee deaths: EU to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and The Guardian – Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author