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One of the lucky ones: bumblebee on dandelion at Altenhagen, Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo: Jakob Stitz via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
One of the lucky ones: bumblebee on dandelion at Altenhagen, Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo: Jakob Stitz via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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  • These German bees in Hermsdorf are the lucky ones, with an extension to the EU ban of neonicotinoids, Photo: Thomas Hubauer via Flickr (CC BY).
    These German bees in Hermsdorf are the lucky ones, with an extension to the EU ban of neonicotinoids, Photo: Thomas Hubauer via Flickr (CC BY).

Bee cause: Germany tightens, UK relaxes neonic regulation

Oliver Tickell

23rd July 2015

An Emergency Ordinance comes into force in Germany today that extends the EU's ban on 'neonic' pesticides to protect bees. But the UK's farming minister Liz Truss has relaxed the ban to allow farmers to use neonics on 30,000 hectares of oilseed rape.

With this regulation we are protecting the bees against dust-borne insecticides. This benefits both the bees as an important part of nature, as well as the farmers, who depend on the pollination of their crops by the bees.

An Emergency Ordinance comes into force in Germany today restricting neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect agains the mass die-off of bees.

The Ordinance prohibits the trade and the sowing of winter cereals and canola seeds treated with plant protection products containing certain neonicotinoids.

"It is important to protect the vitality and health of the whole of nature and us humans, and the fate of our bees is a great concern", said Federal Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, shorly after signing the regulation yesterday.

"With this regulation we are protecting the bees against dust-borne insecticides. This benefits both the bees as an important part of nature, as well as the farmers, who depend on the pollination of their crops by the bees."

Since 2013 the EU has prohibited the three neonic agents clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam for seed treatment for spring-sown canola (oilseed rape), corn and sunflower. The ban is maintained by Germany, and the Ordinance now extends the EU ban to include winter-sown crops treated with the same insecticides. 

Indications of problems with neonics first surfaced in Germany in 2008, when 700 beekeepers on the Upper Rhine suffered the sudden deaths of their bee colonies after farmers planted maize seeds treated with the insecticide clothianidin.

This neonic insecticide damages the brood in beehives, destroys bees' memory and the sense of direction, and disrupts their thermoregulation. Researchers concluded that the wind had blown the neurotoxin to the neighboring wild flower, rape seed and fruit blossoms.

But in England, neonic ban is relaxed

By contrast with Germany UK Agriculture Secretary Liz Truss yesterday approved an application by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to use neonic-dressed seeds this autumn to protect oilseed rape crops from the 'cabbage stem flea beetle'.

The treated seeds will be permitted over an area of around 30,000ha mainly in the east of England where the pest poses the biggest threat, covering roughly 5% of England's oilseed rape crop. The emergency permission allows two products, Syngenta's 'Cruiser OSR' and Bayer's 'Modesto', to be used for a 120 day period.

According to a Defra spokesman, "We have fully applied the precautionary ban on the use of neonicotinoids introduced by the EU, and we make decisions on pesticides based on the science only once the regulators are satisfied they are safe to people and the environment. 

"Based on the evidence, we have followed the advice of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides and our Chief Scientist that a limited emergency authorisation of two pesticides requested by farmers should be granted in areas where oil rape crops are at greatest risk of pest damage."

The NFU's vice president Guy Smith said he was "glad to finally see a positive result", adding: "However, we know that this isn't enough - flea beetle threat is widespread problem on a national scale and the extremely limited nature of this authorisation is not going to help many farmers in need of the protection."

But Friends of the Earth bees campaigner Paul de Zylva attacked the decision: "It's scandalous that the Government has caved in to NFU pressure and given permission for some farmers to use banned pesticides that have been shown to harm our precious bees.

"The NFU's campaign to undermine the pesticides ban has given an impression of large crop losses nationwide, but this is not supported either by the scientific evidence or harvest figures.

"Ever more scientific evidence shows just how dangerous these chemicals are to bees and other pollinators - they should have no place in our fields and gardens."

Why the secrecy?

The process whereby the Committee on Pesticides reached its decision has also been criticised as the detailed proceedings of a crucial meeting on 20th May, normally published after three weeks, have been withheld at government request, in a breach of the committee's terms of reference.

According to a report in the Guardian, the committee actually advised against granting the NFU the permission it sought in the May meeting. It would appear to have now consented to it in a meeting of 7th July, however the agenda and minutes remain unpublished.

The report accuses the government of having "gagged its own pesticide advisers, after they refused to back an application by the National Farmers Union to lift a ban on bee-harming chemicals. The gag is intended to prevent campaigners lobbying ministers on the issue."

Even the NFU's application forms are being kept secret, despite requests from MPs for their publication. The farming minister, George Eustice claimed that this was because the information in the applications was "commercially sensitive".

De Sylva commented: "The threat to Britain's bees from rising pesticide use is of huge public interest. But the secrecy and lack of information surrounding this crucial issue is astonishing. If the government and farmers put as much effort into reversing bee decline as they do playing politics over pesticides and bee health we might have less of a bee problem."

Scientific evidence

Scientific research has proven that the 'neonics' are highly toxic to bees even at very low concentrations, and most especially to wild species including bumblebees.

In January 2013 the European Food Safety Authority announced that neonicotinoids pose "an unacceptable risk" to bees, and in April the EU approved a two-year moratorium on the most damaging uses of three of the chemicals, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, to take effect in December.

Earlier this year the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded that these banned pesticides don't just kill bees, they wreak "havoc" with other insects and plants in the wider countryside too.

This followed earlier work published in July 2014 showing that the impact of neonics reverberated through the entire food chain, even hitting bird populations.

 

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