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From 1 December this year, farmers in the EU will be banned from using three insecticides on crops that attract bees. The ban comes after some studies implicated the insecticides in the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder and will last two years.
Since 2006, worrying numbers of worker bees have been disappearing – for example in the US last year, commercial beekeepers lost up to half of their hives. That’s not just a problem for those of us who like our honey but is also a huge problem for agriculture. Bees pollinate the crops we eat as well.
Over the last few years evidence has been stacking up suggesting that a relatively new class of pesticides, called neonicitinoids because they are variants of the molecule nicotine, could be at least partly responsible. However, the case is confusing rather than clear cut. This led the European Food Safety Authority to look at the evidence and recommend that three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – pose an unacceptable risk to bees and should only be used on crops that are unattractive to the insects. However, other scientists, including those at the UK’s Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have been concerned that the studies do not adequately model bees’ pesticide exposure to in the field.
While the science is disputed, environmental campaigners have been vocal in calling for neonicotinoids to be banned and in the US they are even suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the continued use of the pesticides. Back in Europe, several countries had taken matters into their own hands with France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia all placing partial bans are in place on some neonicotinoids for specific crops.
And so a vote by European member states this week, an appeal following an earlier vote this year, has resulted in a ban being scheduled from December.
While environmental groups celebrate, however, there are still concerns about the effectiveness of the ban, especially if farmers revert to using the older and more environmentally unfriendly pesticides that neonicotinoids replaced. There are also worries surrounding the loss of productivity that might result from the moratorium on neonicitonoids as neonicotinoid seed treatments have allowed farmers to extend the growing season for many crops, increasing yields.
Europe will, in effect, be a continent wide field trial and monitoring will have to be well planned and executed. The results of the ban could have far reaching consequences.