France has become the first country in the world to ban five types of neonicotinoid pesticides linked with the worldwide decline in bee populations. The ban, which took effect on September 1st, goes beyond measures announced this spring by the EU to limit the use of these pesticides. While environmentalists and beekeepers have applauded the decision, some agricultural groups have questioned the efficacy of the decision.
Farmers first began using neonicotinoid pesticides in the 1990s as a replacement for older, more harmful insecticides. These pesticides consist of lab-synthesised neonicotinoids and are used to protect flowering crops such as beets and fruit trees from insects. They’ve proven so effective that they now account for one in three pesticides purchased across the globe.
However, recent scientific studies have shed light on the hazardous impact these pesticides have on pollinators such as bees. Specifically, the evidence suggests neonicotinoid pesticides reduce bees’ sperm count and disrupt both their memory and homing skills. Even more worrying is the finding that similar to the effect of nicotine, bees can develop an addiction to these pesticides.
Bees may be considered a nuisance by summer picnickers, but they are essential to both the environment and economy. Currently, around a quarter of European bumble species face extinction. This is highly worrying given that bumblebee species are three of the five more important pollinators for European crops. Additionally, 1.4 billion jobs across the globe depend on the activity of pollinators.
Until recently, five types of neonicotinoid pesticides were authorised for use by European farmers – clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, thiacloprid and acetamiprid. However, in April the EU announced that three of the five would be restricted from use on outdoor crops starting mid-December.
This isn’t the first time the EU has restricted the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. In 2013 it banned their use on maize, wheat, oats, barley and oil seed rape crops. The EU’s decision to extend the ban came on the heels of a report published earlier this year by the European Union Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which determined neonicotinoid pesticides posed a high risk to both honeybees and wild bee populations. Speaking about the ban, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, stated that, “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”
France has gone several steps further with its new legislation. Its ban covers all five types neonicotinoid pesticides that had previously been used in Europe. Moreover, not only are they prohibited from use on open-air crops, but also in greenhouses. The country has also introduced a food safety bill that, if adopted, would restrict additional chemical substances with similar characteristics to neonicotinoid pesticides.
France’s stance on these harmful pesticides has placed it at the forefront of the battle to protect pollinators. This summer, Canada announced that it would be phasing out two of the neonicotinoid pesticides the EU has already banned. It will decide later this year whether to add the third as well. Unfortunately, the US has moved in the opposite direction, withdrawing a temporary ban on certain pesticides that harm pollinators.
This lack of international consensus is at the heart of many French farmers’ issue with the ban. They argue that restricting the use of these pesticides will undermine their global competitiveness. Without the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, certain crop yields may fall, and the shortage will be met by imports from countries where these pesticides are still in use. Moreover, some agricultural groups have argued that more definitive evidence is needed before the introduction of such a restrictive ban.
The reduction of pesticide use is a goal that has long been in the works for France. In fact, the country had originally set a deadline for a 50 percent reduction in pesticides to be achieved by this year. However, between 2014 and 2016, pesticide use increased by 12 percent, resulting in that deadline’s extension to 2025. The decision to eliminate the use of neonicotinoid pesticides writ large demonstrates France’s commitment to meeting this target.