Despite the UK and seven other EU member states yesterday voting against a ban on the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides – the use of which has been linked with the decline in bee numbers – 15 other members were in favour and a ban will come into force in December this year.
It has been estimated that the ban, which will run for two years to allow more field research to be undertaken, could cost UK agriculture more than £600 million in crop loss from pests.
Andrew Bauer of NFU Scotland said that, while the union believed more field-based research on the link between the pesticides and bee health was essential, the deadline gave growers some time to take professional advice and consider any changes that they might need to make to their cropping plans.
He confirmed that treated seeds could be bought and sold up until 30 November and this would allow autumn-sown oilseed and wheat seeds to be treated.
He pointed out that exemptions to the ban might allow the pesticides to be used on greenhouse crops and on outside crops after flowering. “Importantly, the Commission accepted that crops harvested before they flower are not considered attractive to bees,” he said.
The two Scottish MEPs on the European Parliament agricultural committee took diametrically opposing views on the ban, with George Lyon claiming it might not help bees but it would hit farmers hard and Alyn Smith stating he was very pleased by the decision.
According to Lyon, the fall in bee numbers was a genuine concern. However, “a knee-jerk reaction that could damage our rural economy is not the response that we need from the EU” he said.
He added that it now needed to be a priority for the EU to build on the field work carried out by the UK government which showed no evidence of damage to bee populations and also to gather more hard evidence on whether there was a link between the pesticides and the decline in bee numbers.
“Whatever action is taken in the meantime, we will need to ensure that farmers do not lose out through no fault of their own,” he added.
For Smith the ban was timely: “If the precautionary principle is to mean anything, we can’t afford to wait until bee populations collapse for the ‘final proof’ that pesticides affect bee health.”
He pointed out that bees pollinate three-quarters of all crops, so agricultural security as well as biodiversity and environmental well-being depended on getting the right answer.
He claimed there had been a lot of corporate propaganda “deliberately designed to obfuscate and confuse the issue and this had stemmed from clear vested interests”.
Possibly one who might have been so categorised was Luke Gibbs, spokesman for Syngenta UK, which manufactures one of the main neonicotinoid pesticides. He said: “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.”