EU court backs near-total BAN on world’s most widely used pesticides

EU court backs near-total BAN on the world’s most widely used pesticides after scientists confirm they do cause harm to bees

  • An EU court has upheld a ban on almost all toxic neonicotinoids used in Europe
  • This group of pesticides is responsible for destroying vast numbers of colonies
  • The ban comes shortly after most EU nations all but prohibited the chemicals 
  • The decision is being hailed as a major step forward in protecting the insects
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The EU’s top court has backed an almost complete European ban on the use of some of the world’s most widely used pesticides. 

These toxic chemicals, known as neonicotinoids, are responsible for plummeting numbers of bees around the world, scientists recently confirmed.

Years of research has shown that under controlled conditions the chemicals are toxic to honey bees and bumblebees.

They cause brain damage that can affect learning and memory and impair their ability to forage for nectar and pollen. 

The latest court ruling stated that the the European Commission had been right in 2013 to restrict their use in order to protect bees. 

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 European Union member states have decided on a ban on the outdoor use of ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) confirmed in February the dangers they posed to bees (stock image)

The ruling covers three active substances that have been developed by two of the biggest chemical companies in the world. 

The three culprits that are being eradicated are Bayer’s Imidacloprid and clothianidin as well as Syngenta’s thiamethoxam.

Use of these pesticides was already restricted in the European Union because of the concerns they have ‘sub-lethal’ effects such as harming the bees’ ability to forage and form colonies.

But Bayer and Syngenta warned that banning the insecticides would mean farmers reverting to older chemicals and spraying more.

Bayer and Syngenta had gone to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) hoping to get the restrictions on neonicotinoids overturned.

Syngenta said the court’s ruling was ‘disappointing and unfortunate’ and that scientific innovation was the only way to produce sufficient food and protect the environment. 

The court employed the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’, which allows the governing body to take certain measures if there is scientific uncertainty about risks to human health or the environment. 

One type of neonicotinoid has slipped through the net and will still be used.

The officials overseeing the court ruling declared there had not been an ‘adequate assessment’ of BASF’s fipronil and restrictions against this insecticide were annulled.   

A partial ban in 2013 meant neonicotinoids could not be used on maize, rapeseed and some spring cereals. However, they could still used for crops such as sugar beet.

WHAT ARE NEONICOTINOIDS?

Neonicotinoids are neuro-active chemicals similar to nicotine that have proved to be highly effective at protecting crops from pests, especially aphids and root-eating grubs.

They can either be sprayed on leaves or coated on seeds, in which case they infiltrate every part of the growing plant.

Years of research have shown that under controlled conditions the chemicals are toxic to honey bees and bumblebees, causing brain damage that can affect learning and memory and impair their ability to forage for nectar and pollen.

The chemicals are a key battleground in the environmental movement – with campaigners demanding a ‘complete and permanent’ ban on the pesticides as they are suspected to be harmful to bees. 

Only two to 20 per cent of the neonicotinoids, which are still used on crops such as wheat, are taken up and the rest is left on the soil. 

Samples taken in October revealed 75 per cent of samples from around the world contain the chemicals.

Researchers tested 198 honey samples and found three out of four were laced with at least one of the neonicotinoid chemicals.

For the study, an international team of European researchers tested almost 200 honey samples from around the world for residues left by five different neonicotinoids.

While in most cases the levels were well below the EU safety limits for human consumption, there were exceptions.

Honey from both Germany and Poland exceeded maximum residue levels (MRLs) for combined neonicotinoids while samples from Japan reached 45 per cent of the limits.

Samples from England had neonicotinoid levels that were no more than 1.36 per cent of the amount thought to be safe for human consumption. 

The Commission had decided to review the approvals because of the loss of bee colonies due to the misuse of pesticides. 

Ever tightening restrictions on the use of these chemicals is good news for both bees and their campaigners. 

Campaign group Friends of the Earth claims new evidence has shown neonicotinoids persist in the environment for many years.

It is believed the chemicals run off crop fields and into water and wildflowers.

The organisation says that healthy oil seed yields since the partial ban shows the chemicals are not needed.

This ruling follows on from a ‘major victory’ last month, when the majority of EU countries backed a proposal to ban all use of neonicotinoids outdoors, limiting their use to crops in greenhouses.

Campaigners hailed the decisions to bring in a near-total ban on the pesticides linked to declines in bees as a ‘major victory’.

European Union member states decided on a ban on the outdoor use of neonicotinoid pesticides


Campaigners have hailed a decision by European countries to bring in a near-total ban on pesticides linked to declines in bees as a ‘major victory’

This ruling came after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) confirmed in February the dangers they posed to bees.

Member states endorsement of proposals by the European Commission to completely ban the outdoor uses of the three active substances, meaning they can only be used in greenhouses.

The Efsa assessment, which looked at the impact on wild solitary bees and bumblebees as well as honey bees, confirmed that most uses of the chemicals pose a risk to the insects.

Last year Environment Secretary Michael Gove had said the UK would back a ban on the neonicotinoids, saying new evidence indicated the risk to bees and other insects from the chemicals was ‘greater than previously understood’.

Emi Murphy, bee campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: ‘This a major victory for science, common sense and our under-threat bees. The evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides pose a threat to our bees is overwhelming.

‘It’s great news that Michael Gove listened to the experts and backed the ban – he must now give farmers the support they need to grow food without bee-harming pesticides.’

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE BEES? 

Declines in recent months to honey bee numbers and health caused global concern due to the insects’ critical role as a major pollinator.

Bee health has been closely watched in recent years as nutritional sources available to honey bees have declined and contamination from pesticides has increased.

In animal model studies, the researchers found that combined exposure to pesticide and poor nutrition decreased bee health.

Bees use sugar to fuel flights and work inside the nest, but pesticides decrease their hemolymph (‘bee blood’) sugar levels and therefore cut their energy stores.

When pesticides are combined with limited food supplies, bees lack the energy to function, causing survival rates to plummet.

Antonia Staats, senior campaigner at Avaaz, which had led a petition backed by five million signatures to ban the chemicals, said: ‘Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees.

‘Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.’

A spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: ‘We are committed to enhancing our environment for the next generation, and welcome the vote today in support of further restrictions on neonicotinoids.

‘The Government has always been clear we will be led by the science on this matter.

‘The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids may pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators is greater than previously understood.

‘We recognise the impact a ban will have on farmers and will continue to work with them to explore alternative approaches as we design a new agricultural policy outside the European Union.’ 

The ban has seen a positive reaction from the public and scientists alike. 

Gleeful wildlife-enthusiasts took to Twitter to express their joy at the development.

One user said: ‘Such a fantastic outcome for pollinators, biodiversity and our food chain as EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban. Delighted!’

Another tweeted: ‘Long overdue. My garden is bee friendly.’

Organisations involved with the campaign to block the use of the hazardous chemicals tweeted out their delight at the outcome. 

Friends of the Earth said: ‘You did it! Huge moment for our #bees!! Bee-harming neonicotinoids are no more – the EU has banned them for all outdoor crops. Please share the good news!’

Academics also expressed their pleasure at the resulting prohibition of neonicotinoids used outside. 

Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex, said: ‘There is abundant evidence from lab and field studies that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, and a growing body of evidence linking them to declines of butterflies, aquatic insects and insect-eating birds. 

‘The EU decision is a logical one, based on a major review of the evidence by Efsa.’

Professor Goulson expressed a word of caution, citing other chemicals as potential enemies of bees and reminding people the pollinators may not be entirely out of the woods just yet. 

‘We should also be aware that neonicotinoids are far from the only problem facing bees and other insects,’ Dr Goulson added. 

‘They are also having to cope with accidentally imported parasites and diseases, a lack of flowers and nesting habitat, and exposure to a blizzard of other chemicals. 

‘Banning neonicotinoids is a step in the right direction, but we have a very long way to go if we are to halt insect declines.’ 

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