Regulations & EHS&S

Neonicotinoid ban: Industry speaks out!

By our Editorial Team - 30/04/2018

On 27th April, the EU Member States voted on a proposal to ban all outdoor uses of neonicotinoids. Industry giants like Bayer and Syngenta were quick to criticize the ban, claiming that it will not benefit farmers or the public in Europe.
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The European Commission restricted the use of three highly bee-toxic neonicotinoids in 2013, when imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam were banned on bee-attractive crops. The latest vote, on 27th April 2018, has extended this ban, saying that there is “no safe use for bees for these three insecticides”.

This total ban was first proposed over a year ago, in March 2017, but Member States were slow to support the proposal, and several wanted to wait for a new European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report on new scientific evidence on the toxicity of neonicotinoids to bees. The EFSA published the report in February 2018, and the ban was raised again for discussion in March 2018, although no vote took place. Instead of waiting for the next planned meeting on phytopharmaceuticals (24th May), the European Commission decided to speed up the process and presented the proposal to a vote on 27th April.
Syngenta responded immediately, with a statement that declared the “neonicotinoid decision takes European farming in wrong direction”.2 Bayer swiftly followed, declaring “a sad day for farmers and a bad deal for Europe”.3
Neither company believes that the restrictions will improve the plight of bees or other pollinators. Both think the decision will further reduce European farmers' ability to tackle important pests, for many of which there are no alternatives available.
The controversy surrounding the impact of neonicotinoids on the health of wild bees has been covered quite recently in this publication.1 In our March 2018 edition, Emilie Branch provided a comprehensive review of the chemistry of these insecticides, which have broad efficacy against a range of pests, and how their use led to concerns about their impact on bees and other pollinators. However, as explained by Branch,1 while laboratory studies suggested that these compounds were harmful to individual bees, such studies did not consider that bees live in colonies, and that they feed on a variety of plant sources. 
In fact, notwithstanding the possible errors in interpreting several field studies, all highlighted by Branch in her article,1 the effects of living in a colony, the presence of different types of pollen and nectar, and the interactions with other pesticides, all have the potential to play a vital role in resilience. Thus stems the controversy… the ‘well-known’ fact that neonicotinoids are toxic and harmful to bees, in a manner that could be detrimental on a global scale, may be flawed. By design, as insecticides, neonicotinoids can kill bees. No one has been able to definitively show, however, that exposure to neonicotinoids in the wild is harmful to the extent that these compounds should no longer be used, particularly in light of the properties of the alternatives.
According to Bayer, neonicotinoids are safe when used in accordance with the label instructions. “Even under the extremely conservative evaluation criteria of the EFSA, the most recent bee risk assessment reports did not find high risks for many neonicotinoid uses where a definitive risk conclusion could be drawn,” read the company’s recent statement.3
It continues, “Bayer is surprised that, once again, legislative measures are being implemented without a prior thorough impact assessment. Beyond the costs for European farmers, the restrictions in place have already brought considerable unintended consequences: a lack of alternative solutions; more spray applications, leading to more CO2 emissions; an increased risk of resistant pest insects; and a return to older, less-effective chemicals.”
This echoes widespread concerns over what could replace neonicotinoids. In Europe, since the 2014 ban, farmers have used other pesticides, like organophosphates, that are even more toxic to bees. UK farmers have replaced neonicotinoids with pyrethroid pesticides, which have an unknown impact on pollinators.1
Rather, since it is generally thought that the Varroa destructor mite is the greatest global threat to bee health, it seems sensible to suggest that there are other, better ways to support pollinator health – such as increasing pollinator foraging options or natural habitats, and more efficient control of V. destructor, than banning substances that help farmers manage a broad range of important pests.
Syngenta commented, “The Commission’s reliance on an unapproved regulatory document (The Bee Risk Guidance Document) in order to propose a further ban of neonicotinoids is not sound and will not address the challenges we face in ensuring safe and reliable food supply while also taking care of the environment. In fact, the Bee Risk Guidance Document is so conservative and so far removed from the reality of agriculture that its application would see most, if not all agricultural chemicals banned, including for example, those used in organic agriculture.”
The Czech Republic is one of four countries which stood out against the ban of so-called neonicotinoids, alongside Denmark, Romania, and Hungary. Sixteen EU countries voted for the ban on outdoor use of the pesticides with eight abstaining. The Czech Ministry of Agriculture had specifically been seeking an exception allowing for the use of the pesticide on the sugar beet crop warning that without it production costs and the profitability of the crop would be threatened.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a schedule for the review of neonicotinoid pesticides. Risk assessments for imidacloprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran and thiamethoxam are planned to be completed this year, while an assessment of acetamiprid is expected in 2019.
We can only hope that the US will take scientifically-based approach, and reach a sensible verdict.
1. Branch E. Chemicals Knowledge Hub 2018;1:38-39.
2. Syngenta. Press release, 27th April 2018.
3. Bayer. Press release, 30th April 2018.