Latest EFSA neonic findings based on “unworkable” guidance document

The latest EU scientific advice confirming that neonicotinoid seed treatments and granules are harmful to bees has been criticised by farmers and the supply trade as being based on flawed trial guidelines and for being out of line with regulators in other areas of the world.

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The European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) has updated its risk assessments of three neonicotinoid insecticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – and concludes that most uses of neonicotinoids represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees.  The original 2013 studies led to restrictions on the use (not a full ban) of these products which are important in controlling pests such as cabbage stem flea beetle in oilseed rape.

EFSA says the latest assessments cover wild bees – bumblebees and solitary bees – in addition to honeybees. EFSA’s Pesticides Unit based the update on scientific evidence published since the previous evaluations, and applied the guidance document it developed specifically for the risk assessment of pesticides and bees.  The exposure of bees to the active ingredients was assessed via residues in bee pollen and nectar; dust drift during the sowing/application of the treated seeds; and water consumption.

“The availability of such a substantial amount of data as well as the guidance has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions,” says the head of EFSA’s Pesticides Unit Jose Tarazona. But he concedes: “There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure. Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.”

The report now goes to the European Commission and member states, who will consider whether the current restrictions on the use of these pesticides should be changed.  EFSA stresses that its role is to act as a scientific risk assessment body - it is the Commission and member states that act as risk managers and legislators.

Manufacturer Bayer Crop Science emphasises that the EFSA report focuses on flowering crops, where the use of neonicotinoids is already banned in the EU, not the extension of the ban to cereals and sugar beet.

The company “fundamentally disagrees” with EFSA’s updated conclusions for imidacloprid and clothianidin. “EFSA’s findings place it outside the current mainstream science on bee health, as represented by recent similar assessments done by agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). These assessments have shown conclusively that neonicotinoid products can be used by farmers to protect their valuable crops without harming honey bee colonies.”

Bayer adds that the EFSA risk assessments are based on the unapproved Bee Guidance Document, which disregards the interests of EU member states. “Unfortunately, EFSA chose to base its assessment on an unworkable guidance document that makes it impossible to field a study that would not find risk, despite repeated requests by EU member states for a review of this guidance.

 “EFSA’s conclusions can therefore not be used as a measuring stick to justify further neonicotinoid restrictions. While challenges to bee health remain due to a number of factors, the fact remains that the total number of beehives in the EU is continuing to rise. Bayer will continue to work with farmers, beekeepers and regulators on solutions that will have a positive impact on bee health.”

The AIC adds to Bayer’s stance. “Our big concern is that the EFSA evaluations used the ‘Bee Guidance Document’ which has not been adopted by European Member States because it has been deemed impractical to implement,” notes Hazel Doonan, AIC’s head of crop protection and agronomy.  “Too often, in recent times, product re-approvals have been based on emotion, politics and poor science as opposed to validated reviews of robust science.

‘’It is well documented that a number factors impact negatively on bee health and AIC Members continue to work with farmers to address this by providing habitats and food for bees and pollinators,’’ she concludes.

Meanwhile, EU farmer body Copa Cogeca notes that the EFSA reports show no justification for a general ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments on all crops.

“We attach great importance to honeybees at Copa and Cogeca as they are very important pollinators for crops and ensure biodiversity in the EU. At the same time, bees rely on crops to ensure that they are properly fed,” says Copa-Cogeca secretary-general Pekka Pesonen.

“We call on the EU Commission and member states to assess carefully which uses could be approved based on the assessment of the three active substances. We also urge risk managers to examine appropriate measures to keep these products on the market at the same time as ensuring the safety of bees.”