Neonic insecticides in seed treatments damage bees and other pollinators as the toxic chemicals are expressed in their pollen and nectar. Photo: Claus Rebler via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
FoE mounts legal challenge to bee-killer pesticide permits
24th August 2015
A month after warning the government of legal action over its decision to allow farmers to use bee-killing pesticides banned under EU law, Friends of the Earth has filed a High Court legal challenge to have the 'derogations' declared unlawful.
The Government should be listening to the science and championing the long-term interests of our threatened bees. The distribution of these seeds should now be halted until the courts can decide whether their use is lawful.
Friends of the Earth has applied for a judicial review of last month's decision to allow farmers in England to use oilseed rape seeds coated with 'neonics' subject to an EU moratorium to protect bees.
Last month FoE demanded official information from the government on how it reached its decision to 'derogate' from the EU's partial ban on the chemicals, and warned of possible legal action.
Three neonicotinoids were restricted throughout Europe in December 2013 after scientists warned that they harm bees. However, following a request by the NFU, the Government controversially agreed to allow farmers to use enough neonicotinoid seeds to grow 5% of the oilseed rape (OSR) crop in England, an area of around 30,000ha.
Currently neonic-treated seeds are being made available to farmers in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for the autumn oilseed rape planting season. The seeds are marketed under the brand names Modesto (Bayer) and Cruiser OSR (Syngenta).
Ban did not accord with EU law
Friends of the Earth is challenging the decision to allow the pesticides because it believes the government failed to comply with EU law. Friends of the Earth bees campaigner Dave Timms said:
"We believe the government's decision is unlawful because we believe they have not compled with the European law that sets down the conditions under which they can grant emergency use for a restricted neonicotinoid pesticide."
The National Farmers Union application for 'derogations' on the EU's partial ban on neonic seed treatments was granted by the Environment Secretary Lis Truss on 22nd July based on NFU claims of "widespread crop losses of oilseed rape crops due to infestation by cabbage stem flea beetles."
However this year's harvest has seen a good crop of oilseed rape despite the restrictions on neonicotinoids, with yields 3-9% higher than the 10 year national average - raising the question: where's the emergency to justify breaking the ban?
While some fields have been seriously damaged by the cabbage stem flea beetle, which the neonic seed treatment is intended to combat, the charity Buglife believes the gain from more bees to pollinate the rapeseed flowers is greater than the loss.
"We seem to have forgotten that bees and other pollinators are essential to good crop yields", said CEO Matt Shardlow. "In the trade off this year pollinators may have had a bigger positive effect than any negative impact of flea beetles."
Moreover the flea beetle is just one of many causes of damage to oilseed rape crops. Other hazards to successful crop establishment include grazing by slugs and pigeons on the young plants, against which neonics are ineffective.
Scientific study adds to neonic fears
A study published in the journal Nature last week also found a significant link between neonic use and bee colony losses. Scientists combined "large-scale pesticide usage and yield observations from oilseed rape with those detailing honey bee colony losses over an 11 year period" to "reveal a correlation between honey bee colony losses and national-scale imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid) usage patterns across England and Wales."
As the authors note, "neonicotinoid residues persist in plant tissues long enough to be detectable in OSR pollen and nectar, providing a potential route for mass exposure to pollinators. Indeed the N-nitroguanidine neonicotinoids have been linked experimentally to changes in pollinator foraging behaviour, reduced survival of individual insects, decelerated colony growth and in the case of bumble bees, colony failure."
They also found evidence that farmers who use neonic seed coatings "may derive an economic return" by reducing the number of subsequent insecticide sprays - even though the seed treatments, which cause the pesticide to be expressed in pollen and nectar, cost three times more than spraying.
But FoE insists that the bees must come first. "We believe that allowing farmers to use these 'banned' pesticides is unnecessary, harmful and unlawful", commented Timms. "These neonicotinoid pesticides have been restricted throughout the EU because scientists say they are harming bees, which are crucial for pollinating Britain's fields, allotments and gardens.
"The Government should be listening to the science and championing the long-term interests of our threatened bees. The distribution of these seeds should now be halted until the courts can decide whether their use is lawful."
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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