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The neonicotinoid ban in the EU – saved bees?

The neonicotinoid ban in the EU – saved bees?

On April 27th the European Comission decided the long expected neonicotinoid ban. This wasn’t really a surprise. The three substances included in this ban were restricted since 2013. End of February EFSA  confirmed the risks of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam after a thorough revision of available data. The public opinion was pushing for a decision against neonicotinoids. I didn’t expect anything else than a ban, nor did anyone else I spoke with. However, I think this decision is worth a discussion. So let’s dig a bit deeper.

What was the decision about?

What on some sites and newspapers seemed to be the ultimate step to save the bees, was a rational conclusion following scientific evidence. Using imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam as seed treatments was restricted in certain crops since 2013. The ban decided last week goes further than this: all outdoor uses of these three substances will be prohibited. By now, you may already suppose some caveats… and you’re right.

Despite the fact that in public perception “neonicotinoids” was used synonym to imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, it’s not. There are also other neonics on the market: thiacloprid and acetamiprid. These were excluded from the restrictions and still are. Until now, they’re still considered safe for bees, if used correctly. Same is true for all other insecticides currently registered in Europe, like pyrethroids and organophosphates. The crucial point is “correct use”: all plant protection products pass through a detailed evaluation process before registration. One could discuss if the tests and studies are sufficient. I’m coming back to this later.

Did you notice another important detail? The ban applies only for outdoor uses. In greenhouses it’s still allowed to use these substances, but only if these plants pass their whole life cycle in the greenhouse. So your garden plants will be free of neonics (they pass a part of their life cycles outdoors), but they might have been used in the greenhouses your veggies grew before harvest. These uses aren’t considered a risk for bees.

Consequences of the neonicotinoid ban

Reading the details on the site of the European Commission (EC), I stumbled over “emergency authorisations”. These are given for certain crops when pest issues can’t be solved with other reasonable means. I was surprised to read that these were given in several Member States repeatedly (you can find the list scrolling down on the linked page). Now EFSA has a mandate to assess if these emergency authorisations were justified. And then the EC will further decide:

Depending on the outcome of the assessment by EFSA, the Commission may decide to propose decisions requiring Member States not to grant emergency authorisation in accordance with Article 53(3) for the uses of these neonicotinoids for future seasons. However, provided that these emergency authorisations are found justified, they could be extended or repeated in the following year(s).

In addition, the ban as it was decided isn’t in force yet. This will happen on the 20th day of the publication in the Official Journal of the European Union. I just checked. It’s not there yet. After the ban is in force, the Member States will have six months time to implement the new legislation. Therefore, maybe the neonicotinoid ban will be fully in place only for next summer. However, until then, the current restrictions are still valid.

Impact of the restrictions from 2013

These restrictions were already subject for intense discussions. A recent paper  describes the impact of the restrictions from 2013. Seed treatments with imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam were not allowed in maize, oilseed rape (OSR) and sunflower. The publication isn’t an easy read, but extremely interesting. The authors made a survey on 800 farmers growing maize (France, Spain and Italy), OSR (Czech Republic, Germany and England) and sunflower (Spain and Hungary). Each case (e.g. sunflower in Spain) included 100 farmers. They were asked about their plant protection practice before and after the restrictions (before: 2012 and 2013, after: 2014). The majority of the farmers used seeds treated with neonicotinoids and had to switch to other measures after 2013. Obviously, this was different depending on the crop and the country. But most cases have one thing in common: the frequency of insecticide treatments increased after the restrictions were in place.

Of course the farmers didn’t use seeds treated with imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, but they may used other seed treatments, or sprayed the plants multiple times during their growth. The farmers had still pest issues to address, so they continued using insecticides. The conclusion of this study was:

Farmers generally relied on alternative seed treatments or more soil/foliar treatments in the first growing season after the restrictions took effect. Further study is required to assess the effectiveness and sustainability of these alternatives compared with the restricted insecticides.

So, I really wonder about the sustainability of this neonicotinoid ban.

Are bees safe now?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying to get the banned substances back. But I don’t like simplifying too much, as you know. Only recently I tried to discuss pollinator decline in a broader context. But staying with pesticide use and its impact on bees we might come back to the registration process. To those of you living in an EU country, you can be sure that the registration process for pesticides is very strict. It includes the risk for bees, for freshwater, maximum residue levels on the food produced and many parameters more. Independent if you live in Germany, Spain or Lithuania, the pesticides registered in your country comply to the same standards. This is a good thing.

However, standards can be difficult, too. Because they don’t respect the complexity of the reality. For bees, the standards are adapting to the reality: EFSA published a guidance on the risk assessment for bees. But, this guidance isn’t legally binding (yet?). And there is some criticism from different parties (not only industry) which may lead to some changes. So the process is still not finished. There will be some material also for future posts.

In quintessence, the neonicotinoid ban is a good thing also because scientific evidence was the basis of this decision. Which isn’t always the case. But I’m sorry to say: bees aren’t saved now. There is still lots of work waiting. Beginning with better registration processes, over more habitat for bees in agricultural landscape to – perhaps – rethinking how we want agriculture to look like. And what we accept for the sake of a more sustainable future.

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