EU moves closer to ban of three bee-killing neonicotinoid insecticides

On 27 April 2018, representatives of EU governments meeting in Brussels will vote on a European Commission plan to ban three neonicotinoid insecticides: Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin, and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam. The Commission has based its plan on an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which concluded that the neonicotinoids pose a risk to bees.


Greenpeace EU food policy adviser Franziska Achterberg: “The vote tomorrow is still touch and go, with some countries seemingly prepared to ignore the evidence on the impact of these neonicotinoids. To protect bees and their vital contribution to food production, governments must support a ban. But they must also recognise that these three neonicotinoids are just the tip of the iceberg. The use of four other neonicotinoids and other insecticides with similar effects on bees is completely unrestricted in Europe. Only France is moving towards a blanket ban on all neonicotinoids. A chemical-by-chemical approach can no longer guarantee the protection of the environment or health.”

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides, which are chemically similar to nicotine and affect the central nervous system of insects. Farmers apply them as seed coating, foliar spray or granules. Neonicotinoids have systemic properties, meaning that plants absorb and release them as they grow, including via their pollen and nectar.

Introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have become the most widely used class of insecticide in the world. The neonicotinoid family now includes 13 compounds, including fourth-generation neonicotinoids and new derivatives [1]. Seven of these, including imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam are authorised in the European Union (EU).

Existing EU restrictions

In 2013, the EU imposed a partial ban on imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The ban applies to crops such as maize, sunflower, oilseed rape, wheat, barley and oats, among others. It also covers uses in orchards before fruit trees have flowered. However, farmers can still apply neonicotinoids to crops harvested before flowering or not considered as attractive to bees, such as sugar beet and potatoes.

Bayer and Syngenta have challenged the EU’s partial ban at the European Court of Justice. A ruling is expected on 17 May 2018. 

Near-total ban

In March 2017, the Commission proposed to extend the partial ban to a near-total ban. The Commission proposal is based on an EFSA analysis of studies commissioned by neonicotinoid producers. Based on these studies, EFSA concluded in 2016 that all uses of the three neonicotinoids as seed coating or granules either posed a high risk to bees or that a high risk could not be excluded. According to the Commission, “the currently still possible outdoor usage can no longer be considered safe”.

The EU cancelled a vote planned for December 2017, after several countries wanted to delay the vote until results of the EFSA evaluation of the science were made public.

EFSA published this evaluation on 28 February 2018. It confirmed that the three chemicals threaten both managed and wild bees, and that the restrictions imposed in 2013 are insufficient to control these risks. The Commission acknowledged that the EFSA report “[strengthened] the scientific basis for the Commission's proposal to ban outdoor use of the three neonicotinoids”.

Continued use in greenhouses

The Commission proposal would still allow the use of the three neonicotinoids in permanent greenhouses. The Commission considers that “there is no risk to bees for all uses where the plants are treated in a permanent greenhouse and remain there during the whole lifecycle”.

However, EFSA has not assessed the risk to bees consuming contaminated surface water. Studies show that neonicotinoids contaminate watercourses around greenhouses, most likely through leaching into the soil or leakage from irrigation systems.

Instead of imposing a total ban, the Commission proposal asks EU countries to “pay particular attention to […] the exposure of bees via the consumption of contaminated water from the permanent greenhouses”.

EU government wavering

In December 2017, when the Commission first planned to hold a vote, 11 EU countries were in support of measures to restrict the use of the three neonicotinoids. Eleven countries are again expected to support the Commission’s proposal, including Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Croatia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta. However, the Commission needs the backing of at least 16 EU countries, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s total population.

If the Commission fails to garner sufficient support in a formal vote at the meeting on 27 April, it will schedule another vote in an appeals committee. If the vote again fails to deliver the required majority, the Commission has the power to adopt the measures it proposes.

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