UK: EFSA & Restrictions For Neonicotinoids

Last Updated: 27 February 2013
Article by Ruxandra Cana, Claudio Mereu and Koen Van Maldegem

EFSA: no restrictions for neonicotinoids despite posing "a number of risks" to honey bees

On 16 January, EFSA published its report concerning the impact of neonicotinoids on honey bees. While in its report EFSA highlights a "number of risks" posed to bees by pollinators from neonicotinoids, it has not called for a ban or restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids and points out that, due to shortcomings in available data, their scientists were unable to finalise some of the risk assessments, thereby limiting the certainty of their findings.

Over the past decade or so there have been numerous reports of declines in bee colonies, with many speculating that this could be due to the adverse effects of intensive agriculture and insecticide use. In response to the increased bee mortality rates, the European Commission asked EFSA to investigate and to assess the risks of neonicotinoid insecticides which are among the most commonly used crop pesticides worldwide. (see our November 2013 Bulletin contribution on this).

EFSA's review sought to determine the risks associated with three types of neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) and focused on three main routes of exposure: exposure from residues in pollen and nectar in the flowers of treated plants; exposure from dust produced during sowing of treated seeds; and exposure from residues in guttation fluid (i.e. sap) produced by treated plants.

Despite findings that "a high risk was indicated or could not be excluded" in relation to adverse effects on honey bees, EFSA also concluded that it was possible to identify a "low risk" for certain authorised uses of neonicotinoids.  Where risk assessments were able to be completed, conclusions for each of the three neonicotinoids are as follows:

  • Exposure from pollen and nectar: use is acceptable on any crops not attractive to honey bees;
  • Exposure from dust: risks to bees was either indicated or could not be excluded (but with some exceptions: use on sugar beet, crops planted in glasshouses and for the use of some granules is acceptable);
  • Exposure from guttation: the only risk assessment completed was for maize treated with thiamethoxam for which an acute effect on honey bees was indicated.

However, EFSA's scientists found that despite these risks, there was insufficient data to conclude there was any link between the use of neonicotinoids and "bee colony collapse disorder," a key contributor to increases in bee colony decline.

Lack of certainty

Despite the gaps in data and inconclusive findings, critics of neonicotinoids remain concerned about their overall effects on bees and EFSA and the European Commission face continued backlash over the continued authorisation of these insecticides.

In contrast, the absence of any ban on neonicotinoids and the lack of conclusive evidence to support fears about the effects they have on bees, will come as welcome news to the insecticides industry.  Indeed, just one day before EFSA's report was released, a review of the socio-economic value of neonicotinoids was published by Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture ("Humboldt").

Humboldt, an EU think tank, warns that any decision to ban neonicotinoids will do nothing to improve declines in bee colonies and could have a significant impact on the EU farming and food production industries.   The report suggests that a ban would result in a 20% reduction in the yields of some crops, costing the EU economy up to €4.5 billion a year, with sharp increases in food prices, not to mention the likelihood of significant job losses.  Pesticide producers have indicated a willingness to work with the European authorities to find pragmatic solutions to address the gaps in data, but stress that decisions on product approvals must be based on clear scientific evidence and not the result of political pressures.

Numerous reviews and studies have been conducted on the effect of neonicotinoids on bees, and the evidential gap will have to be filled to allow for further evaluation of the potential risks.

EU Commission : two-year pesticides suspension?

On Thursday 31 January, the EU Commission announced, following its scientific committee meeting, that based on EFSA's findings, it would consider proposing the suspension of the use of neonicotinoids for two years.  Further discussion is scheduled to take place at an EU expert committee meeting at the end of February. The proposal should be ready by March. That measure, which will be presumably based on the precautionary principle, is generating a lot of turmoil as it may be a disproportionate means to address the issues under consideration. Indeed, a least restrictive means would be to require risk mitigation measures and/or additional data rather than suspending the product registrations from the market.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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