Last reviewed 8 October 2013
Paul Clarke discusses new EU legislation coming into force on 1 December 2013 aiming to restrict the use of certain active substances in pesticides.
Beeware of pesticides, EU warns
Amid growing concern across Europe about the collapse of bee populations, Regulation (EU) No. 485/2013 will ban the use and sale of seeds treated with products containing clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid. These are neonicotinoids, chemicals that can be applied to the seeds of crops and which remain in the plant as it grows, killing insects that try to feed on it. Environmentalists have described them as the new DDT, claiming that the substances are as dangerous as that widely-banned pesticide. The European Commission argues that the EU cannot afford to take chances with bee health. It has estimated that pollinators contribute at least €22 billion each year to European agriculture, with 84% of crops needing insect pollination.
In spring 2012, new information on the sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on bees was published. The Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to review the risk assessment of the active substances concerned. In January 2013 the Authority presented its conclusions on the risk assessment for bees for the three neonicotinoids. For certain crops, it identified high acute risks for bees from pesticides containing these active substances. The EFSA identified in particular high acute risks for bees from exposure via dust as regards several crops, from consumption of residues in contaminated pollen and nectar as regards some crops, and from exposure via guttation fluid (sap) as regards maize. In addition, unacceptable risks due to acute or chronic effects on colony survival and development could not be excluded for several crops.
However, many farmers and crop experts argue that there is still a lack of evidence to support the ban and the UK was one of several Member States that tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to stop the EU ban going ahead. The only exception to the general prohibition on the neonicotinoids is that they may still be used on seeds to be grown in greenhouses. The EFSA told Member State Ministers voting on the issue that it had identified several weaknesses in a study published by the UK Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), which suggested that neonicotinoid pesticides did not have a major effect on bumble bee colonies under field conditions.
Also coming into force at the beginning of December 2013 is Regulation (EU) No. 781/2013, which restricts the use of the active substance fipronil, a widely-used insect nerve agent. Previously approved for use in pesticides, the Commission now argues that new information suggests that a high risk for bees from this substance cannot be excluded except by imposing further restrictions. Pesticides containing fipronil will therefore be limited to the treatment of seeds intended to be sown in greenhouses and to the treatment of seeds of leek, onions, shallots and the group of Brassica vegetables intended to be sown in fields and harvested before flowering. Crops that are harvested before flowering are not considered attractive to bees.
Action in the UK
Despite its opposition to the Commission's proposals, the UK Government has been active in defence of its bee populations. Between January and March this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) consulted on proposed changes to managing and controlling pests and diseases that affect honey bees. Defra's response to the 184 replies it received to this consultation was published on 22 July 2013 and can be found at www.gov.uk. Defra (and the Welsh Assembly Government, its partner in this exercise) noted that there was significant support for many of the proposals they put forward. The next steps will be taken forward with the guidance of the Bee Health Advisory Forum.