Pollinators and pesticides: EU votes yes to second round of pesticide restrictions

A pesticide that was highlighted as posing “an acute risk to European honey bee populations” by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been banned across the European Union for two years. A vote took place yesterday in the European Commission, with 23 member states voting in favour of the ban.

A risk assessment published by EFSA at the end of May first drew attention to the potential effects of using the pesticide as a seed treatment. Swift action has followed this, with the European Commission yesterday tabling a proposal to restrict the use of fipronil. Only 2 member states voted against yesterday’s proposals: Spain and Romania. 3 member states abstained from the vote: Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the UK. From the end of December, fipronil will no longer be able to be used as a pre-treatment for maize and sunflower seeds.

A Defra spokesperson explained the reasoning behind the stance in The Guardian: “The UK abstained from the vote as there were concerns that the proposals were not based on sound scientific evidence.” It was also highlighted that “Fipronil is not used in any authorised pesticide in the UK so this ruling will have little impact [here].”

2013 has been marked by continued attention on pollinators and pesticides, and the banning of fipronil yesterday comes less than 3 months after the European Commission decided to implement a two-year ban on 3 neonicotinoid pesticides from December. The final vote on the proposal was inconclusive, with no clear majority, meaning that the European Commission had the final say on the matter. The UK was one of 8 member states who voted against this proposal, and days before the neonicotinoid vote, Sir Mark Walport, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, wrote a letter in the Financial Times arguing that a ban on the pesticides might not be the best solution for pollinators.

In both votes, the UK has chosen not to use the precautionary principle approach to implement a small-scale or short-term ban on the pesticides while their full effects are unclear. The precautionary principle is one of the key elements for policy decisions concerning environmental protection, as it can be applied where there are grounds for concern that an activity could cause, or is already causing, harm but the degree of risk is still uncertain.

Despite their controversial stance on EU regulation, bees and other pollinators still appear to be a focus for Defra. Earlier this month, a report assessing the value and health of bees and other pollinators in England was released. This took new policy and evidence into account and highlighted that the lack of long term monitoring of pollinator populations has been one of the greatest barriers to understanding the causes and consequences of pollinator declines. This review was the start of a National Pollinator Strategy, announced in June by Defra Minister Lord de Mauley.

Understanding the uncertainties of pollinator decline is vital, and the complexities of a number of drivers can mean the story is difficult to untangle. Ecology can help here, and has been key in providing much needed evidence for the effects of pesticides on bees and other pollinators. It is crucial that this evidence gathering continues over the next 2 years to continue to drive evidence-based policy across Europe.