On January 16, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority – the European Union agency that provides independent risk assessment and communication on existing and emerging risks associated with the food chain) published a scientific opinion on three pesticides used in agriculture worldwide (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam). The EFSA concluded that they are at high risk to bees.
A Little Background
These three pesticides, called neonicotinoids, were placed on the market in the early 1990s and are among the world’s most common agricultural pesticides.
The main feature of these products – sold under names including Gaucho, Cruiser, Poncho, Nuprid, Argento – is that they are used in granules or seed coating. The seeds are covered with the active pesticide before being sown; the plant then secretes the toxic element throughout its growth.
Scientists Deem Neonicotinoids to be Harmful
Three major kinds of bees’ exposure to these pesticides have been identified:
- dust grains or granules produced during sowing, which can be disseminated by wind and spread into the broader environment;
- contamination by pollen and nectar;
- in the case of maize treated with thiamethoxam, exposure by “guttation” (excretion of water droplets loaded with pesticides that are sometimes consumed by insects).
Scientific studies have established that neonicotinoids have a lethal impact on bees. They disorient them to a point that some become unable to find their way back to their hives. In fifteen years, bee mortality increased from 5% to 30%.
The lethal dose of these products is a few billionths of a gram. That’s why simple contact with dust may be fatal to bees.
In the three opinions of the EFSA, experts recognize that science is still far from a solution. Depending on the product and its method of use, data often cannot conclude the existence or absence of risk. For example, it is currently impossible to assess the risk posed by imidacloprid on bees when the product is used on chicory, lettuce, endives, radishes, etc.
Some European Countries Have Already Taken Action Against Neonicotinoids
Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and other European countries have recently taken action against neonicotinoids. Some have conducted parliamentary investigations into their effects on bees. On July 29 2012, France withdrew its authorization to place on the market Cruiser OSR, which is often used in seed treatment for canola, on the basis of a scientific opinion from the French risk assessment agency, ANSES. Italy and Germany prohibited the use of this pesticide only for maize. The Netherlands prohibited its use in treating plants that attract bees. Slovenia banned its use for all plants.
The European Commission Announced Restrictions on Neonicotinoids
On the basis of EFSA’s scientific opinions of the three pesticides, the European Commission announced a series of restrictions on January 31, 2013. These three neonicotinoids could see their use limited in the European Union for two years, effective July 1, 2013, if Member States validate the measures proposed by Brussels.
The Commission chose to focus the prohibition only on crops attractive to pollinating bees (rapeseed, sunflower, cotton and corn) and not on winter cereals, such as wheat or barley. The Commission also plans to limit their use to professionals, though they are still used widely today in individual gardens and orchards.