PARIS â€” The European
Commission will enact a two-year ban on a class of pesticides thought to be
harming global bee populations, the European Unionâ€™s health commissioner said
â€śI pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our
bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over â‚¬22 billion
annually to European agriculture, are protected,â€ť Tonio Borg said in a statement from Brussels, where the commission is based.
Mr. Borg made the announcement after
representatives of the 27 E.U. member states failed for the second time in two
months to reach a binding agreement on a proposal to ban the pesticides, known
as neonicotinoids. The commission had proposed the ban after the European Food
Safety Authority recommended in January that use of the pesticides be
restricted until scientists determined whether they were contributing to a
die-off in bee colonies.
Though a simple majority of 15
nations backed the measure in committee Monday, it failed to gain the required
â€śqualified majority,â€ť which takes into account the relative weight of
populations. Britain, which abstained last time, opposed the measure this time.
Germany, which also abstained last month, backed it. France and Poland, two of
Europeâ€™s largest farming nations, supported it.
Under E.U. rules, Mr. Borg has the
authority to move ahead on his own in such cases, as his predecessor, John
Dalli, did in 2010, controversially allowing the cultivation of genetically
Worldwide sales of the pesticides
total in the billions of dollars. Two companies that make them in Europe, the
German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, a Swiss biochemical company, have
said they were willing to finance additional research, but that the current data
do not justify a ban.
â€śThe proposal is based on poor
science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides
do not damage the health of bees,â€ť John Atkin, Syngentaâ€™s chief operating
officer, said Monday in a statement. â€śInstead of banning these products, the
commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee
health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition.â€ť
Bayer CropScience called the
commissionâ€™s plan â€śa setback for technology, innovation and sustainability,â€ť
and warned of â€ścrop yield losses, reduced food quality and loss of
competitiveness for European agriculture.â€ť
Europeâ€™s struggle with the question
of neonicotinoids and bee health is being closely watched in the United States,
where the pesticides are in wide use, and where a
bee die-offover the past winter appears to have been one of the worst ever. Beekeepers
are suing the
Environmental Protection Agency over its approval of the products, which they
claim were allowed on the market with inadequate review.
Neonicotinoids are among the worldâ€™s
most effective and widely used insecticides, and there is significant
disagreement as to how much â€” if at all â€” they are contributing to the crisis
that has devastated global wild and domesticated bee populations.
A plant or seed treated with such a
chemical incorporates it into its tissues as it grows, making it lethal to
insects that bore into a stem or nibble a leaf. The neonicotinoids are also
present in pollen and nectar, and two recent
suggested that even sublethal doses might hurt bees.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
notes that 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of human food are
pollinated by bees. Estimates of the value to those crops run to as much as
$200 billion annually.
While there are other natural
pollinators, including wild bees and flies, current agricultural practices
would be impossible without honeybees, and honeybee populations have shrunk
alarmingly over the last decade. In the United States, domesticated bee
populations are at a 50-year low and falling, and the story is much the same in
other countries. Scientists say several factors, including verroa mites and
viruses, have contributed to the decline.
In some cases, commercial beekeeping
operations are decimated in a matter of days as workers disappear, a phenomenon
scientists have named Colony
Collapse Disorder. So badly has
the bee population been diminished that in California, the important almond
crop now requires more than one-third of all the domesticated bees in the
United States for pollination.
Some scientists fear that if the
neonicotinoids are banned the chemicals that replace them could be worse. But
even those who question the linkage between the pesticides and bee deaths say
the current state of knowledge is inadequate and that more study
Under the European measures, which
take effect Dec. 1, there will be sharp restrictions on three neonicotinoid
pesticides â€” clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam â€” for treating seeds,
soil and leaves on flowering crops attractive to bees, like corn, sunflowers
and rapeseed, the source of canola oil. The products may still be used on crops
like winter wheat for which the danger to bees is deemed to be small. Use by
home gardeners will be prohibited.
The two-year ban will allow
commission officials to re-examine the scientific studies that were submitted
for approval of the pesticides in the first place and â€śto take into account
relevant scientific and technical developments.â€ť
â€śThis gives bees a bit of breathing
space to recover,â€ť said Paul de Zylva, an environmental campaigner in London
with Friends of the Earth. The time should be used to come up with a
comprehensive plan to address the bee crisis, he said, with civil
organizations, governments, farmers and companies working together.
The European ban â€śdoesnâ€™t solve all
the problems, though, we never said it did,â€ť Mr. de Zylva added. â€śYouâ€™ve got to
look at all the problems facing bees, itâ€™s not just pesticides.â€ť