The European Commission has proposed a 2-year ban on certain pesticides in a bid to protect bee health. The move follows reports earlier this month from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that three pesticides routinely used by farmers pose an "acute risk" to essential honey bees.
The commission wants to ban the use of three "neonicotinoid" compounds—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—for 2 years on four crops that are attractive to bees: maize, cotton, sunflower, and rapeseed. Maize seeds planted in 2013 would be exempted. "We'd be giving member states 2 years to see if [the ban] works, and then we'll see if European legislation needs to be reviewed," a spokesman for health commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters today.
But this period may be "a bit short" to observe a decrease in bee toxicity, says Antonio Gómez Pajuelo, a biologist and owner of beekeeping consulting company Consultores Apícolas in Castellón, Spain. Because neonicotinoids persist in the soil for 2 years, a ban of the same length may appear to have no beneficial effect on bee populations, Gómez says. Toxicity could indeed decrease after 3 or 4 neonicotinoid-free years, he adds.
The ball is now in the court of the European Union's member states. The Dutch government put the topic on the agenda of a meeting of agriculture ministers on 28 January in Brussels, arguing that the European Union should take harmonized action following EFSA's findings, instead of each country acting on their own. France, Germany, and Italy have already restricted certain neonicotinoid uses, whereas Slovenia has banned them completely.
But four governments sounded a note of caution at the Brussels meeting, a source close to the European Union's Council of Ministers says. Spain and Denmark said EFSA's analysis should be deepened and broadened, while officials from the United Kingdom said that they were awaiting the results of field studies in their territory. Hungary added that beyond studying the effects of the pesticides themselves, researchers needed to look at the methods used to apply them to the crops.
Meanwhile, the pesticides' makers—Syngenta in Basel, Switzerland, and Bayer CropScience in Monheim, Germany—are defending their products. The commission's proposals are "hardly proportionate or practical," a Syngenta spokesman tells ScienceInsider. "We believe that a large number of member states agree and recognize that a restriction would be a significant loss to farmers and the economy." He added that banning neonicotinoids would not protect bee populations "that are primarily under threat from diseases and poor nutrition."
The commission says it hopes to have the ban in place by 1 July. But governments first must vote on the proposal through a Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH). Made up of 345 technical experts from the European Union's 27 member states, SCFCAH monitors the implementation of E.U. laws related to food safety and animal welfare. If a minority of countries blocks the SCFCAH vote, the matter will have to go through a lengthier process at a higher political level.