The use of certain pesticides linked to bee deaths will be banned in the European Union, despite heated debates between member states on the issue, the European Commission (EC) has announced.
European politicians voted in favor of a ban on a group of chemicals known as Neonicotinoids, which are used to keep insects away from plants and are widely used by farmers in many European countries, the BBC reported. A total of 15 countries supported the ban, while eight, including the UK, voted against it. This meant that a full ban could not be imposed due to lack of qualified majority and the EC decided that a two-year ban should be implemented on the use of Neonicotinoids on plants that are attractive to bees. The restrictions will come into effect in December.
Prior to the vote at the EC, opponents of the ban argued that there was not enough scientific evidence to support claims that the chemicals were harmful to bee populations. However, concerns about their use on plants have long been a matter of discussion. Neonicotinoid pesticides are relatively new nicotine-like chemicals that act on the nervous systems of insects. They are less harmful to mammals and the environment as a whole, compared to other sprays used in the past. Pesticides made in this way dissolve in water, which means they can be applied to the soil and taken up by the whole plant as it absorbs water from the ground through its roots. This way the plant itself becomes toxic, as its roots, leaves, stems and pollen all contain the chemical. Neonicotinoids are sometimes applied as seed treatment, meaning that the seeds are coated in chemicals before planting.
Following the vote, EU health and consumer commissioner Tonio Borg said that a final decision would be published over the next few weeks and pledged to do his best to make sure that bees were protected. The insects are vital to ecosystems and contribute more than EUR22 billion annually to European agriculture, he explained.
A spokesman for the EC, quoted by the Financial Times, admitted that there were "gaps in the science" but noted that the EU was experiencing serious problems with the collapse in bee populations. Neonicotinoids have been singled out as one of the factors that have contributed to the significant drop in the number of bees, so restricting their use was the right thing to do, he said.
Environmentalists welcomed the news, with Friends of the Earth calling the ban "a significant victory for bees and common sense." Similar views were expressed by a number of scientists, such as Dr Lynn Dicks, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, who commented that precautionary measures were supposed to be the basis of environmental regulation.
However, others were not as convinced. Professor Lin Field, head of biological chemistry and crop protection at Rothamsted Research, argued that the decision may have been made because of the influence of political lobbyists rather than based on a sound scientific risk-benefit assessment.