On Thursday, Jan. 31, the European Union’s commissioner for health and public policy, Tonio Borg, proposed a measure aimed at protecting European bees.
His pitch: a two-year ban on clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, a group of pesticides collectively known as neonicitonoids. Borg’s proposal comes in the wake of a troubling study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which found that seeds coated in neonicitonoids stand a good chance of harming bees that come into contact with them; his idea was further bolstered by a report issued by the Status and Trends of European Pollinators (STEP) project, which recorded a 16-percent decline in European bee colonies between 1985 and 2005.
“We are requesting that member states suspend for two years the use of these [neonicitonoid] pesticides on seeds, granular atom sprays and for crops that attract bees – sunflower, maize, rape and cotton,” said Frédéric Vincent, a spokesman for Borg. “These are proportionate measures, giving member states two years to see if (the two-year suspension) is working and then we’ll see if we need to review the legislation.”
In recent years, scientists have reported a sharp, mysterious decline in bee populations worldwide — yet most have been unable to pinpoint a culprit. Pesticides have long been suspected as the root cause of bee disappearances. Additionally, scientists have noted the devastating effects of the varroa mite, a crab-like parasite that infiltrates colonies and sucks blood from both adult bees and pupae; the mite has made its way around the world over the last 20 years. However, findings have yet to reveal anything concrete.
Now, Borg’s announcement has received support from several environmental awareness agencies and non-profit organizations — though some fear two years will be an insufficient time frame. “This is the first time that the EU has recognized that the demise of bees has a perpetrator: pesticides,” Luis Morago, a spokesman for advocacy group Avaaz, told The Huffington Post. “The two-year suspension on pesticides could mark a tipping point in the battle to stop the chemical Armageddon for bees, but it does not go far enough.”
Greenpeace spokesman Matthias Wuethrich agrees. “A ban on a few hazardous pesticides is only a very limited safeguard. The disappearance of bees is just a symptom of a failed agricultural system based on the intensive use of chemicals,” he said.
But not everyone favors the pesticide ban. Several agricultural unions have opposed Borg’s plan, arguing that the costs of implementing the ban would fall on the shoulders of other agricultural sectors. “As farming communities, we know the added value of bees as pollinators – and we need these workers,” said Copa-Cogeca commodities director Arnaud Petit, whose organization represents European farmers and agricultural cooperatives. “At the same time if we have a drastic ban from the Commission, it will be the livestock sector that pays the price and it is one that we cannot afford.”
In addition to the unions, several member states of the European Union — the United Kingdom and Spain, among others — have strongly opposed the measure, calling for further research in lieu of a widespread moratorium on neonicitonoids. And not to be excluded from the conversation, several pesticide manufacturers pesticide makers have noted that such a ban would incur costs of roughly €17 billion over the next five years and put at least 50,000 employees out of work. Many have cited a recent report published by the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture (and funded by Bayer and Syngenta, two of Europe’s top chemical producers). The study argues that declining bee populations are not the result of pesticide use, but other factors like disease and habitat destruction.
Later this month, an EU expert committee will convene and vote on Borg’s proposal; if approved, the measure could be signed into law as early as July 2013. Meanwhile, Avaaz has posted an online petition in support of the pesticide ban; nearly 2.5 million digital signatures have already been collected.