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Agrochemical majors hit by EU’s neonicotinoid ban

On 29 April 2013, the European Union voted on the fate of neonicotinoid pesticides. Although there was insufficient support for a total ban, the EU Commission is to impose a two-year restriction on their use, which could begin as soon as July this year. Under the new rules, farmers will only be able to use these pesticides on winter wheat and crops that are unattractive to bees. Countries such as the UK, which had argued against the ban, will not be able to opt out.

The reason for the restrictions is the threat that neonicotinoids are alleged to pose to bees. What is uncontroversial is that bee populations have been declining in many parts of the world since the 1970s. According to a 2011 article in UK newspaper The Guardian,  the past few decades have seen three of Britain’s 25 bumblebee species become extinct, and populations of other bee species fall by up to 70%; similar sharp declines have also been reported in the US. The consequences for agriculture if this trend is not halted are potentially very serious. Bees are responsible for pollinating nine out of ten agricultural species, including many fruit and vegetables, and are vital to the production of around 30% of all the food we eat.

Several studies suggest that one reason for bee populations dying out since the 1990s is the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides. They have similar molecular structures to the nicotine found in tobacco. Crops treated with neonicotinoids are toxic to insects that try to eat them, as the insecticide disrupts the functioning of the insect nervous system. There are several hypotheses to explain why bees might also be threatened. For example, low level contamination of nectar might not kill bees directly but disrupt their brain function enough to render them incapable of locating food sources or finding their way to and from their hives.

However, there are other possible reasons for the loss of bees, such as infection with parasites. Furthermore, opponents of the new EU restrictions point out that when farmers cannot use neonicotinoids, they may opt instead for older pesticides that could also be harmful to the environment.

Global sales of neonicotinoid pesticides amount to around $2 billion a year, and one in particular, imidacloprid, is the most widely used pesticide in the world. Leading manufacturers of these products, notably Bayer and Syngenta, will wish to maintain this valuable revenue stream.

In March this year, in an effort to forestall the EU’s action, the two companies put forward a bee health plan. Its proposals included planting flowering borders around fields to offer bees a habitat, and additional research on potential threats to pollinators, such as parasites and infectious diseases. They also commissioned a study that showed that the impact of the restrictions would see a fall in EU exports of wheat while maize imports rose.

With the science still somewhat ambiguous, the EU decision has one merit: if bee populations begin to rise in Europe after the ban, it will be an additional piece of evidence in support of the neonicotinoid hypothesis. But for the agrochemical companies, this data may be generated at a high cost.

Some related reading:

Syngenta AG Company Profile

Bayer AG Company Profile

Fertilizers & Agricultural Chemicals in Europe Industry Profile

Posted in Pesticides.

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