Bees, neonicotinoids and the EU

20 May 2016
In brief: Neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide accused of harming bees, are restricted by the EU. The British government argued against these restrictions at the time, saying that the mixed scientific evidence didn’t justify a ban. Leaving the EU would mean we’re no longer covered by these restrictions, and the government might not continue them given the choice. Ministers say it depends what the latest research says.

Neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide which have received a lot of attention recently due to their potentially harmful effect on bees.

Members of 38 Degrees have asked us to look into whether restrictions on their use would be affected by leaving the European Union.

Those restrictions are currently in place at EU level, so the government would have the freedom to allow more use of neonicotinoids if we were to leave. Whether it would or not is hard to say. The government opposed the EU restrictions at the time, and still says that it takes a different approach to other European countries, but ministers say they will be guided by the scientific evidence.

The EU’s role in controlling neonicotinoids

All pesticides are regulated by the EU. In December 2013, the European Commission restricted three neonicotinoids across the whole of the EU on crops considered attractive to bees.

But countries can authorise the use of the pesticides in emergency circumstances for 120 days.

The UK government can approve some pesticide use that would otherwise be ruled out by the EU. The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides makes recommendations when emergency authorisations are requested.

There have been three such requests by the National Farmers Union since the EU restrictions came in. The Committee supported one, over a limited area, but advised the government to reject two others, most recently in May 2016.

It advised that the application provided “insufficient information to ensure that use will be limited… [and] did not offer adequate assurance that the use will be controlled in an appropriate fashion.”

These decisions were based on whether the applications met the EU’s legal test for emergency use of unauthorised pesticides, rather than assessing their dangers.

What does the science tell us?

There is general agreement that bee populations are in decline in the UK and around the world, for various reasons.

But there’s no such agreement about how big a role neonicotinoids play. Some studies have found that neonicotinoids harm bees, while others have seen little or no effect.

A major review of the evidence last year concluded that there are still “major gaps” in our understanding of how neonicotinoids affect bees, and “a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”.

Government opposition to EU restrictions on neonicotinoids

Government reviews in 2012 and 2013 argued that the studies which have been carried out test bees with unrealistically high levels of neonicotinoids, and that harmful effects would not be found in the environment. The predecessor to the Expert Committee on Pesticides agreed that a ban wasn’t justified at the time.

The government accordingly voted against the EU restrictions in 2013, saying that more evidence was needed.

If we were no longer a member of the EU, the government would no longer be covered by these restrictions.

The agriculture minister said more recently that “sometimes we have a difference of opinion with other European countries”, but stressed that “our position is that we will not remove the existing restrictions if the evidence points to the fact that those restrictions should remain”.

So there’s evidence that the government would still take a different approach to the EU, but we can’t predict what exactly it would do, as more research has been published since 2013. We’ve asked the Department for its latest take on the scientific evidence.

What’s next for neonicotinoids?

The National Farmers Union has said that it will continue to make applications to use neonicotinoids in emergency circumstances.

The EU is conducting a review of the restrictions which will conclude in 2017.

This article is part of a series written at the request of membership organisations that do not take a stance on the outcome of the EU referendum but would like to inform their members about particular issues. These include 38 Degrees and the Federation of Small Businesses.

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