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May 8, 2013

Proposal for Restriction of Neonicotinoid Products in the EU

The ACTA Group

The European Union (EU) voted April 29, 2013, on a proposal to restrict the use of three neonicotinoid substances for agricultural uses. The substances are clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. The proposal failed to gain sufficient support from the 27 EU Member States Appeal Committee and was passed to the European Commission (EC), which has confirmed that the proposal will be adopted in the coming weeks. Restriction upon the agricultural use of the three neonicotinoid substances will apply from December 1, 2013 (see online).

The proposal is supported by several governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGO) that rely upon scientific arguments to support the view that there is a link between use of neonicotinoid substances in agriculture and decline in bee numbers. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has produced risk assessment documents examining the risk with information provided from governments and industry (available online). EFSA concludes that there is a link between neonicotinoid use in agriculture and decline in bee numbers.

Industry may oppose any new restrictions on neonicotinoid use, arguing that pesticides are but one of many factors contributing to bee colony health, and that it is premature to single out any one type of pesticides or any specific ones as the central or main contributor. Ironically, given the proposed suspension of use in the EU, the prohibition on uses may result in a kind of large-scale field experiment in the U.S. Environmental information on bee and pollinator numbers in the EU over the next few seasons may become key to supporting restrictions in other jurisdictions, or may lead to a relaxing of the proposed restriction in the EU.


The proposal comes at the latest stage of concerns voiced by environmental groups, Member States, government agencies, and public pressure groups over possible links between neonicotinoid use in agriculture and a decline in bee numbers. EFSA had previously published reports identifying the substances clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam as posing a risk to bees. EFSA modified the report on thiamethoxam as more information became available (see online), however, the conclusions remained unchanged.

The Appeal Committee is composed of high-level representatives of the 27 EU Member States and was convened when the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (March 15, 2013) failed to reach a qualified majority. Although the proposal has been reported by mainstream media as passing the Appeal Committee vote, it did not gain sufficient support either to be passed or dismissed, and has therefore been passed to the EC. The EC is expected to adopt the proposal within the coming weeks, although no specific date for adoption has been given.

The proposal restricts the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam for seed treatment, soil application (granules), and foliar treatment on bee-attractive plants and cereals. In addition, the remaining authorized uses are available only to professionals. Exceptions will be limited to the possibility to treat bee-attractive crops in greenhouses, in open-air fields only after flowering. The restrictions will apply from December 1, 2013. As soon as new information is available, and at the latest within two years, the EC will review the conditions of approval of the neonicotinoids to take into account relevant scientific and technical developments.

Chemical manufacturers in the EU are prepared for the restriction of agricultural uses, having taken part in the highly publicized consultations with EFSA. A socio-economic impact analysis of neonicotinoid seed treatment (conducted by industry) indicated that up to € 2 billion is contributed annually to commodity crop revenues (see online). This indicates that although the EU chemicals industry is aware of this restriction, it may result in large changes in company dynamics.

Many NGOs that actively campaigned for bans on neonicotinoid substances in agricultural uses see the adoption of the proposal as a victory. The National Farmers Union (NFU) in the UK, however, commented: “These actions will prove popular with many, but the tragedy is that without good evidence they will do nothing to measurably improve pollinator health” (see online).

Potential Implications

The intensified level of regulatory scrutiny and the need for additional controls imposed by EU regulatory bodies has not gone unnoticed in the United States. Although far short of the suspension of use of specific pesticides as seen in Europe, concerns about pesticides and their potential contribution to colony collapse have been on the increase.

Regulatory and research authorities in the United States (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), respectively) have reexamined and increased enforcement of current label requirements, enhanced their research coordination efforts, and imposed additional use restrictions on certain pesticides due to pollinator health concerns. The pesticide industry has stepped up its urging to consider all the many factors that may contribute to pollinator heath impacts and remind stakeholders that the issue is complicated and loss of habitat, Varroa mite infestations, and other factors must also be addressed.

The United States authorities have broadly agreed that the cause of pollinator health decline is due to more than simply the impact of pesticides. Very recently, on May 2, 2013, EPA and USDA released a “Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health,” available online, that has been broadly summarized as concluding that multiple factors are contributing to recent pollinator decline. Although not a formal statement of current United States government policy, application of pesticides and the need for additional research are cited among various factors behind colony health problems in the report. The United States government’s position has consistently been that a wide variety of factors is behind pollinator health, and that to single out pesticides generally or neonicotinoids in particular is premature or altogether unwarranted. Recent decisions and pronouncements by EPA do indicate an increase in the level of concern and include the imposition of stricter controls as recent responses. The newest set of further restrictions imposed in the EU will continue to add to the pressure, or at least the scrutiny, of any parallel United States regulatory response.