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Neonicotinoids – EU restriction goes ahead, but the science is uncertain

June 3rd, 2013

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides with a common mode of action that affects the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis and death. They are systemic insecticides, meaning they enter every part of the target plants – including the pollen and nectar.

A number of recent studies have suggested that exposure to neonicotinoids at sub-lethal doses can have significant negative effects on bee health and bee colonies.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked by the European Commission (EC) to assess the risks associated with the use of three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) with regard to their effects on bees. The EFSA scientific report identified “high acute risks” for bees through exposure via certain uses of the insecticides (EC, 2013). Based on this, the EC proposed a two-year restriction on neonicotinoids.

Member states’ experts on the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health voted regarding the proposal on 15th March 2013 and an Appeal Committee voted on 29th April 2013. Both votes were inconclusive. Since no qualified majority was reached, the decision as to whether to adopt the proposal was then with the EC. On 29th April 2013, the EC decided to go ahead with their proposal to restrict the use of the three neonicotinoid insecticides studies in the EFSA assessment.

In the UK, the Government does not support the ban, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) believes that a ban is not justified at present. DEFRA is of the opinion that the studies indicating negative impacts on bees were mainly conducted in the laboratory and do not accurately reflect field conditions.

The nature of the issues involved, and the problems with interpretation, highlights the fact that laboratory studies and fate modelling cannot fully describe the behaviour of a chemical in the environment. Field data regarding environmental fate and effects are more complex and far more uncertain to interpret, and apparent concerns may have many contributory factors. In all chemical regulation, systems are all subject to varying levels of certainty in respect of the regulatory controls.

It is also of note that the decision to restrict use of the insecticides may result in a rise in the annual cost of food production. Restrictions could also potentially lead to an even greater impact on wildlife through use of older, more hazardous chemicals to spray crops.