Pollinators, including honeybees, play a crucial role in our food and agricultural production. According to estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, out of the hundred crop species that provide 90% of our global food, 71% are pollinated by bees.
However, these essential insects are in trouble. Some wild bumblebees have undergone dramatic declines in population and even become regionally or globally extinct. The data available for other pollinators paint a similarly worrisome picture.
The decline of pollinators is a symptom of the prevailing industrial agricultural system. Numerous studies shows that industrial farming is threatening the future of the insect pollinators it so depends on, by driving biodiversity loss, destroying foraging habitats and relying on toxic chemicals to control weeds and pests.
Neonicotinoid insecticides were introduced in the mid-1990s as a “benign” substitute for older and more damaging substances. Their use has increased rapidly, mainly as seed coatings, and today they are the most widely used class of insecticides globally. However, since the mid-2000s scientists have raised concerns that neonicotinoids may harm non-target organisms, and in particular honeybees and bumblebees.
In response to the increasing body of scientific evidence, in 2013 the European Union adopted a partial ban of three neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam), as well as another insecticide, fipronil. The EU restricted a number of uses, which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had confirmed were a threat to bees. However, EFSA also acknowledged that there was insufficient scientific data to assess certain particular uses and impacts on pollinators other than honeybees.
New research shows that harm to bees arises not only from treated crop plants but also from contaminated wild plants that have not been directly treated with neonicotinoids. Furthermore, recent data demonstrates that neonicotinoids have become pervasive in our environment, polluting water, soil and natural vegetation. They pose significant risks to many wildlife species other than bees, including butterflies, beetles and aquatic insects, with possible ripple effects up the food chain.
A report published last January by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food states that the effects of pesticides on non-target organisms are hugely underestimated: “neonicotinoids (…) are causing soil degradation and water pollution and endangering vital ecosystem services such as biological pest control. Designed to damage the central nervous system of target pests, they can also cause harm to beneficial invertebrates as well as to birds, butterflies and other wildlife.”
Last March, the European Commission proposed a ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides known to harm bees and other species, citing neonicotinoids’ “high acute risks to bees.”
However, Julie Girling, a British Member of the European Parliament, presented three resolutions calling on the Commission to withdraw the ban this June.
Given the large amount of evidence on the risks of neonicotinoids, it is irresponsible to continue using them, making it irresponsible to call for a withdrawal of the ban proposed by the Commission.
The three parliamentary solutions will be voted this week in the European Parliament Committee on Environment and Public Health. Should the resolutions be approved, they will be voted by the whole parliament in plenary, with the results of the vote sending a political signal to the Commission. The decision on whether to approve the ban or not will be taken in the next weeks by Europe’s national governments.
Slow Food supports the ban proposal and calls on our representatives in the European Parliament to vote down the three resolutions. European food systems do not need neonicotinoids: Agroecology can ensure good, clean and fair food for all.
Click here to read the Slow Food position paper on bees and agriculture.
The Environmental Risks of Neonicotinoid Pesticides: a review of the evidence post-2013 (2017)
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2017)