The European Commission on Monday said it would impose the world’s first continent-wide ban on three pesticides which environmentalists say are killing the bees that pollinate Europe’s crops.
The decision was a blow to the two chemical companies, Bayer of Germany and Switzerland’s Syngenta, which turn profits from the products they say are not to blame for the sharp decline in the bee population.
A vote in Brussels saw 15 European governments backing a two-year suspension on the use of the three pesticides, but did not reach the required majority under EU rules, thus handing the final decision to the commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
“I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion euros [US$28.78 billion] annually to European agriculture, are protected,” EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg said after the ballot.
The pesticides will be banned from Dec. 1 from use on some crops and during seasons crucial for the survival of bees.
The insecticides — imidacloprid and clothianidin produced by Bayer, and thiamethoxam by Syngenta — are used to treat seeds and are applied to the soil or sprayed on bee-attractive plants and cereals.
The commission demanded their ban for use on four major crops: maize (corn), rape seed, sunflowers and cotton after the European Food Safety Authority said they posed “disturbing” risks to bees and other pollinating insects vital for human food production.
Bees account for 80 percent of plant pollination by insects, which is vital to global food production. Without them, many crops would be unable to bear fruit or would have to be pollinated by hand.
Countries opposed to the ban, including Britain and Hungary, failed to muster enough support to block the commission’s proposed moratorium.
Germany, which in a previous vote had abstained and was under heavy pressure from pharmaceutical firms and farmers to fight the proposal, also voted in favor.
Both Bayer and Sygenta, the top player in the global agrichemical market, reject as flawed the findings of studies saying their products are to blame for falling bee numbers.
Bayer CropScience’s Richard Breum said in a statement that the company remained convinced the insecticides were “safe for bees if the products are applied according to instructions” and warned that the EU ban would be “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.”
Syngenta chief operating officer John Atkin said the proposed ban “is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees.”
“Instead of banning these products, the Commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition,” Atkin added.
Copa Cogeca, which represents European farmers and agri-cooperatives, last week said that even a temporary ban would cause 2.8 billion euros in losses to farmers and a further 2 billion euros to the EU economy due to a fall in seed production and rising feed costs resulting from the need to increase imports.