EFSA Finds Neonics to Harm Bees

04.03.2018 -

The discussion of whether to turn the current EU moratorium on neonicotinoid-based insecticides (neonics) into a permanent ban is expected to be revived before the end of the month in light of last week’s assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that the chemicals present a high risk to wild bees and honeybees.

Reports said the topic may be taken up at the Mar. 22 meeting of the EU’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food & Feed, which advises the European Commission. Some think that, in view of the overwhelming evidence, the committee could immediately take a vote. Recalling the protracted debate over glyphosate, others consider it rather unlikely, however.

Following a preliminary assessment by EFSA in 2013, the EU in 2014 temporarily banned the use of the chemicals on crops attractive to bees, including sunflowers, oilseed rape and maize. A final decision on whether to make the ban permanent had been scheduled for December 2017, but was postponed pending release of the latest EFSA report.

The Commission had been expected to consider banning the chemicals in outdoor uses only, as bees are not present in greenhouses. Environmental groups now have called for the EU moratorium on neonics to be extended to all crops, however. “Pollinators are facing a dramatic decline and neonics have now clearly been shown to be one of the major causes,” said the Pesticide Action Network (PAN).

In its announcement, EFSA said it had evaluated 1,500 studies, including all the relevant published scientific literature, and data from academia, chemical companies, national authorities, NGOs and beekeeper associations. The evidence, it said, indicates that “foraging bees are exposed to harmful levels of pesticide residues – in particular those of the three neonics thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – in pollen and nectar of treated fields and contaminated areas nearby, as well as in drifting dust.”

On the basis of more limited evidence, the food watchdog said it also had concluded, that neonics can persist and accumulate in the soil, and thus affect generations of planted crops as well as the bees that forage on them. The three pesticide chemicals are produced in the EU by agrochemicals giants Bayer of Germany and Chinese-owned, Switzerland-based Syngenta.

 “The availability of such a substantial amount of data has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions. There is variability in the conclusions [and] some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed,” said Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA’s pesticides unit.

In contrast to environmental advocacy groups, the crop protection industry and farmers’ groups took issue with the agency’s conclusions. Any further restrictions on neonics would be “ill conceived,” Syngenta commented. “When regulators make decisions about crop protection products, what should matter is science, data and that the processes in place are respected and that the public interest is served.”

The EU farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca said the EFSA report confirmed there was “no justification” for a total ban on the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments on all crops. It called on the Commission “to assess carefully which uses could be approved based on the assessment of the three active substances” and also urged risk managers to “examine appropriate measures to keep these products on the market at the same time as ensuring the safety of bees.”  

Britain’s National Farmers Union said EFSA had “failed to take proper account of what is happening to bees in real field situations,” asserting that a balance is needed between environmental protection and food production.

Singling out neonics for the decline in bee health is wrong, Europe’s Crop Protection Association (CPA) said. Repeating an argument used frequently by Bayer, CPA said “bee health is known to be affected by a range of factors including habitat loss, climate change, intensive farming and the varroa mite.”

While bets are on that the EU will eventually ban the use of neonics at least outdoors, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks likely to take the opposition direction and give Syngenta a free hand to spray the pesticides on wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, alfalfa, rice and potato.

The EPA’s listing of the intent to grant Syngenta’s application to “dramatically escalate” the use of neonics, as critics expressed it, came almost simultaneously with the updated EFSA assessment. Commentators noted that the intent was not announced but “quietly published in the federal register.”

In January of this year, the EPA released a preliminary assessment of on-field exposures to thiamethoxam, which is said to have found all uses of the pesticide on foliar, soil and seeds results in exposures exceeding the level of concern for acute and chronic risk to adult bees.  Advocacy groups questioned why it is now doing an about-turn and expanding their use.

"For years the EPA and pesticide companies bragged that by using treated seeds they were avoiding spraying insecticides, and despite the science showing that these treated seeds were deadly to birds, claimed that they were environmentally beneficial," said Lori Ann of the US Center for Biological Diversity.