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Regulatory and Scientific Battles Over Neonicotinoids Rage On

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The UK government has decided to temporarily lift an EU suspension on the use neonicotinoid pesticides, which some claim are decimating bee populations. However, evidence regarding the causes of colony collapse disorder remains decidedly mixed.

UK farmers get a temporary reprieve

Neonicotinoids are neuro-active insecticides that are chemically similar to nicotine. Some scientific studies have linked them to colony collapse disorder, which causes adult bees to abandon their hives in winter. Honeybee colonies have experienced significant losses over the past decade, and with bees the prime pollinators of a third of all crops worldwide, the implications of this could be hugely significant.

As a result of the UK government’s decision, two neonicotinoid pesticides (made by Bayer and Syngenta) can now be used for 120 days on about 5% of the oil seed rape crop in England. Even Prime Minister David Cameron has seen fit to weigh in on the issue, maintaining, “The EU put in place the ban on neonics, but if scientists start telling us that these things are safer than they thought then perhaps we can licence them.” The EU ban commenced in December 2013 and is due for review at the end of this year.

Market Shares of the Top Five Brands in Global Pest Control Market: 2014


Source: Euromonitor International

Could climate change be the real culprit?

The trouble is that there is still nowhere near a scientific consensus on the risks (if any) posed by neonicotinoids to bees. Two studies published during July highlight this. The first, which was published in The Journal of Environmental Chemistry, found that more than 70% of pollen and honey samples collected from foraging bees in Massachusetts contained neonicotinoids. While the presence of neonicotinoids in honey does not necessarily implicate them in colony collapse disorder, environmentalists have been quick to seize on this finding.

The second study, which was published in Science, found that climate change had narrowed the geographic range where bumblebees are found in North America and Europe over recent decades. Jeremy T Kerr, a conservation biologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who was the study’s lead author, commented, “Bumblebee species across Europe and North America are declining at continental scales. Our data suggest that climate change plays a leading, or perhaps the leading, role in this trend.”

“The question is, have neonicotinoids or habitat losses caused the huge range losses we observed in this study? The answer for now is clearly ‘No’,” commented Alana Pindar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph and an author of the paper. On the other hand, James Strange, an entomologist at the US Department of Agriculture, told the New York Times newspaper, “What they’ve shown is that climate change has at least some effects on the population changes of some bumblebee species. But I did not come away convinced that climate change is causing these movements … we haven’t figured it out yet.”

To confuse the issue still further, a study conducted in southern Sweden that was published in the journal Nature during May 2015, found that the use of neonicotinoids “reduced wild bee density, solitary bee nesting and bumblebee colony growth and reproduction under field conditions”.

EU decision will have a global impact

All of this points to one hell of a battle when the EU moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids comes up for review at the end of this year, with the UK government likely to weigh in against the ban. With the EU perceived as something of a gold standard when it comes to environmental regulation, this decision will have ramifications well outside of Europe in the US$2 billion global pesticides category, where Bayer Advance, which contains neonicotinoids, is the market leader.

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