Commission decides against some pesticidesFriday 24th of May was a good day for bees and bio-diversity: the decision by the European Commission (EC) to implement EU-wide restrictions on pesticide use was officially announced and published. A first small, sweet victory for all those millions of EU citizens, beekeepers, NGO´s and politicians that over the past months fought hard for the mere survival of the policy measure that the Commission announced in January. The Greens and others have always argued that the dramatic loss of bee colonies is linked to the devastating triple P: (lack of) Pollen, Pathogens and Pesticides (which ironically is also the acronym for Plant Protection Products, or pesticides). Lack of pollen is largely linked to a certain type of (monoculture) agriculture, which is in turn linked to the very same agro-chemical companies as they sell both seeds and pesticides. The Greens were and are fighting for a shift to more sustainable forms of agriculture which would be better for ecosystems and biodiversity, crucial for the production of good quality and healthy foods. But in the short term, banning pesticides is the most effective measure politicians can take. So restrictions on the use of three pesticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) belonging to the neonicotinoid family will enter into force on the 1st December, because they were identified by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as being harmful to Europe’s honeybee population. This ban targets pesticides used in the treatment of plants and cereals that are attractive to bees and pollinators but will last for only two years. And the Commission announced that it will also be reviewed, at the latest, within those two years, most likely to keep fierce legal action by Syngenta, Bayer & co at bay.
The arrogant and aggressive lobbying letters from these agro-chemical companies were revealed by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in April. CEO had access to private letters and emails sent to the Commission and EFSA by the two above-mentioned companies and related lobby groups which displayed these companies' strong-arm tactics in trying to avoid the ban. These letters exposed these companies' lobbying strategy and even included attempts to change the wording of the original EFSA press release on scientific advice on the three neonicotinoid pesticides. As CEO wrote 'Syngenta had access to this document before its publication and immediately sent EFSA an extremely aggressive letter demanding the text be changed and issuing legal threats against the agency and its director'. These companies made similar legal threats to the European Commission. If there is one important political aspect to these events it is that apparently, certain multinationals think it is quite normal to use intimidating tactics and language to protect their interests against the general interest. Which in turn, says a lot about their political power and morals. Although two years is a very short time span for such a ban to be implemented and fully monitored and although the ban is, for various reasons not perfect, the Greens/EFA welcome the political courage of Tonio Borg, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, and his team in defending the general interest and refusing to submit to the economic blackmail of certain big corporations. These events also show that democracy can be defended and that united action can succeed, when the general interest has independent science on their side. But of course neither the Greens/EFA nor beekeepers and NGO's are naïve enough to think that we've won and the bees are now safe. The Commission also announced that exceptions to the ban on use of these neonicotinoids are still allowed, but will be limited 'to the possibility to treat bee-attractive crops in greenhouses, in open-air fields only after flowering'. One of the basic problems with this is of course that these systemic pesticides can be used after flowering of plants and also on crops not attractive to bees.
Evidence against neonicotinoids continues to growThese neonicotinoids are extremely toxic; independent scientific studies have shown (Bonmatin, 2009) that they are a few thousand times more toxic than the legendary chemical DDT - and stay active in the soil and water for a long time. The half life time of Imidacloprid, for example, is between 40 and 997 days. And it was a study by Bayer Crop Science itself that showed only 20% of the neonicotinoid is absorbed by the plant, and thus 80% is washed away into the environment. Yet scientists know that per hectare of corn an average of 75 gram of imidacloprid is used, while 3.7 nanogram is already the lethal dose for 50 honeybees.
Put these facts next to the fact that the use of neonicotinoids has skyrocketed the past two decades....and use has tripled between 1997 and 2010, with over 1000 applications in more than 120 countries. Since 2004, for example the surface water in the Netherlands is heavily polluted with Imidacloprid, with an excess in some areas of 5 times the maximum tolerable risk standard (MTR, which is 13 nanogram per liter water). Independent scientists from the university of Utrecht concluded from intensive field research that the 'current large scale use of imidacloprid in Netherlands has major adverse effects on non-target aquatic macro invertebrates, like 70% reduction in abundance'. They clearly state that respecting the MTR 'is only possible by a drastic reduction of the use of neonicotinoids, which means the annual use should be reduced by at least 90%'. Given that the world production of Imidacloprid was 20,000 tonnes in 2010 (in comparison: DDT peak-use was 80,000 tonnes in 1959), this means we face a health epidemic that goes beyond bees and affects other insects and whole ecosystems as well. This is why we know the battle is not over and why the Commission ban is just a weak first step.