The European Union has decided to impose a two-year ban on three of the world’s most widely-used agricultural pesticides.
The move follows a report in early April from the European Food Safety Authority that the three pesticides pose an acute risk to honey bees, which are vital to food production.
The targeted farm chemicals, which will be banned for two years starting this Dec. 1, belong to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They are a type of insect nerve agent that has been widely used for more than a decade.
Although the chemicals’ manufacturers say field tests have shown the pesticides pose no threat to bees, a recent British honeybee field study found evidence to the contrary, and that was enough to convince 15 of 27 EU member governments, and the executive European Commission, to support a ban.
Adam Vanbergen, an ecologist with the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Britain, says some of the evidence against neonicotinoids is debatable, but much of it is troubling.
“There were abundant laboratory studies that were showing some worrying signs,” he said. “It’s sad to say that the evidence wasn’t as strong in the field. But then it is much more complicated to demonstrate cause and effect in field situations.”
Vanbergen says that in the absence of any systematic monitoring, it will be hard to determine the impact of the ban and whether it can reverse the decline in pollinator populations.
He directed a study, released last week by the Insect Pollinators Initiative of the United Kingdom, that compiled years of research on threats to pollinating insects. It found that a variety of factors is responsible for the decline, including pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, spread of disease and alien species.
“My concern about the neonicotinoid issue is that to an extent it may distract attention from the bigger picture,” Vanbergen said. “We really do need to try and manage our landscapes much more sympathically towards biodiversity. And pesticides are a part of that without question. But I’m a little bit worried that people may go away thinking that moratoriums such as this are going to solve the issue.”
Vanbergen hopes the EU moves forward with new research on how farmers can employ pest control techniques less reliant on toxic chemicals.
“But also we should be exploring alternatives to better manage pests in agricultural systems and that may well include integrated pest management strategies,” he said, “where pesticides are a sort of judicious last resort to outbreaks of pests, and they are not used in a sort of prophylactic way.”
Vanbergen adds that the fate of the bees and other threatened insect pollinators, such as butterflies, wasps, flies and beetles, is a matter of food security, not only in Europe, but around the world.