No plan bee

8th February 2013

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  • Food and drink ,
  • Agriculture ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Natural resources



As European authorities recommend a ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, Paul Suff argues that early warning signs of their harmful impact on bees were ignored

Bee numbers are declining in many countries, including in the UK. The European Food Safety Authority recently concluded that neonicotinoids – a class of insecticides that affects the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis and death – could be partly responsible for the collapse in bee populations.

The European Commission is now proposing a two-year ban on three widely-used neonicotinoid chemicals in specific circumstances.

Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide, bees pollinate 71. So, given the importance of bees in the food chain many environmentalists are likely to see the commission’s plans as a positive move.

Yet, French farmers began reporting abnormal behaviour in bees and winter losses as far back as 1994, soon after neonicotinoids started to be used in seed-dressing and soil treatment.

Eventually, in 1999 France banned the use of an insecticide, whose active substance was a neonicotinoid, on sunflower seed-dressing and, in 2004, restricted its use on maize. Other countries, including Italy but not the UK, have followed suit.

The European parliament officially acknowledged the issue in December 2001, when it adopted a resolution stating systemic insecticides had caused “extremely serious damage” to bee populations in several member states.

Why has it taken so long for the EU authorities to act?

The commission reached its decision by applying its interpretation of the precautionary principle – where, in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, environmental protection should come first.

European health commissioner Tonio Borg describes the commission’s action as “swift and decisive”, but the reality is that early warnings from France and elsewhere were largely ignored by policymakers, who gave the benefit of doubt to the chemicals industry for too long.

Rather than letting damage occur while research continues, early warnings should signal early restrictions until scientists are clear on the impacts.

With new nanomaterials rapidly emerging and research into nanotoxicology failing to keep pace, caution should always be the order of the day.

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