Top European Union (EU) health officials on Thursday proposed a partial ban on three common pesticides thought to harm bees, a critical link in the global food chain.
The move by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, comes in the wake of a report issued earlier this month by the EU's top food safety watchdog, which determined the chemicals pose a number of risks to the honey bees that farmers across the world depend on to pollinate their crops.
Environmentalists and pesticide opponents have suspected for years that the three pesticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – are responsible for declining bee populations and massive bee die-offs in the United States and abroad.
Environmental and food safety groups in the US are now urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to follow the European example and suspend the most dangerous uses of the pesticides while speeding up reviews of their safety.
Clothianidin and imidacloprid, manufactured by Bayer CropScience, and thiamethoxam, manufactured by Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, are neonicotinoid insecticides related to nicotine that attack the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis or death. A number of recent studies have suggested that sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids can harm bees and their colonies.
"EPA cannot continue to condone the use of chemicals responsible for the wholesale killing of our pollinators and the irreparable damage of the US food supply," said Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the US-based watchdog group the Center for Food Safety (CFS).
France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia already have banned some uses of neonicotinoid pesticides to protect honey bees, and the proposal by the European Commission to partially ban certain applications of the chemicals is expected to expand uniform restrictions across the EU.
"Many of the most scientifically and agriculturally advanced nations have seen the dangers these neonicotinoids present and are reacting," said Jenkins. "The question is, why isn't the US?"
The EPA has initiated reviews of commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides, but the reviews may not be completed until as late as 2018. Last year, several members of Congress, including Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), asked the EPA to expedite the reviews and investigate the link between neonicotinoids and declining bee populations.
"The proverb, 'No bees, no honey, no work, no money,' may become all too true if we don't investigate the impact of pesticides on our valuable honeybee population," Markey said at the time. "Bees are vital to our nation's economy and food security."
Jenkins told Truthout the review schedule is "ridiculous" given the mounting scientific evidence that the pesticides pose serious risks to the important pollinators.
The EPA has no plans to place restrictions on the pesticides in the meantime, despite petitions filed by beekeepers, the CFS and other groups.
The EPA did not respond to repeated requests from Truthout for information on the review schedule and the agency's efforts to protect honey bees from the suspect pesticides.
European Watchdogs Say Bees Are at Risk
In a series of reports released on January 16, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), determined that clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam pose a number of risks to bees and concluded that the only "acceptable" use of the three pesticides is on crops that do not attract honey bees.
Bees risk harmful exposure to the pesticide in traces found in pollen and dew, as well as in granule form, EFSA determined.
"Given the importance of bees in the ecosystem and the food chain, and given the multiple services they provide to humans, their protection is essential," EFSA stated in a news release.
Bayer CropScience and Syngenta have publically criticized the EFSA study and blame declining bee populations on a number of environmental factors.
"This report is unworthy of EFSA and of its scientists," said John Atkin, chief operating officer of Syngenta, in a statement last week. "It is obvious to us that EFSA has found itself under political pressure to produce a hurried and inadequate risk assessment."
Atkin told Bloomberg Businessweek on Wednesday that EFSA's conclusions were made "in the direction of restrictions," and he is concerned about the reputation of the product and his company. Alternatives to thiamethoxam, he said, are less effective and environmentally sustainable.
Bayer and Syngenta joined other agrichemical firms in funding a report claiming that a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in Europe could reduce yields of some crops up to 20 percent and cost the European economy billions of euros. The study was released the day before EFSA announced the pesticides pose risks to bees.
EFSA said that data gaps prevented scientists from finalizing risk assessments for some pesticide uses authorized by the EU, and the agency proposed "a much more comprehensive risk assessment for bees" and "a higher level of scrutiny for interpretation of field studies" to be implemented before the pesticides are used on crops favored by bees.
Pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder
EFSA stopped short of linking the pesticides to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon characterized by the emptying of entire bee hives. CCD was first reported in the US in 2006, when beekeepers reported losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives, according to the US Agricultural Department (USDA).
Since then, colony losses have averaged 33 percent each year, and continued losses at that rate could pose a significant threat to the pollination industry, according to the USDA.
Neonicotinoid pesticides became widely used in the US in the early 2000s, and within half a decade the collapse of whole colonies of pollinators was making headlines. Environmentalists suspect the pesticides may be partially responsible for CCD and declining bee populations in general.
In April 2012, a Harvard study concluded that one of the main neonicotinoids now facing new restrictions in Europe, Bayer's imidacloprid, is the likely culprit behind CCD and declining bee populations worldwide.
The EPA and USDA are both studying potential causes of CCD and suspect the disorder can be blamed on a number of factors including disease, parasites, management practices and environmental stressors. Pesticides are included in the studies, the agencies say, but despite mounting concern and new evidence from Europe and beyond, the EPA and USDA continue to report that there is no scientific evidence to demonstrate a direct correlation between CCD and the pesticides.