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Two Sides of the Neonicotinoid Coin

Neonicotinoids have been widely recognised as a significant risk for bees and other pollinators, with an increasing number of studies proving such risk in the last two decades. Only in 2018, the evidence was enough for the European Union to approve a ban on all outdoor uses of already previously restricted neonicotinoids [1]. We can now find two different tales, two sides of the way the story to improve or continue degrading the health of bees may continue.

Last month, both France and the United States took significant steps that will influence bees, pollinators and biodiversity in their countries. Firstly, we may see France as an example of generalised legal caution towards the use of neonicotinoid-based products. Secondly, the US has made worrying statements that their once safe wildlife refuges will no longer have overall protection from these pesticides (nor from GMOs).

Let's first examine the case of France in the context of the EU. France precedented the restrictions imposed by the European Commission to three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) [2]. In 2012, the French government had already banned the use of thiamethoxam after an evaluation by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). Currently, thanks to its "biodiversity law", France will be a pioneer in banning five neonicotinoids [3], going further than the restrictions at European level. The ban will come into effect on September 1st, undoubtedly marking a significant step towards improved protection of bees in the country.

However, not all is as good as it seems. In France, as in several other countries of the European Union, there are constant circumventions to the rule against dangerous pesticides. The continuous derogations and emergency authorisations pose a problem to the objective of safeguarding insect biomass and overall insect well-being. In 2017, France continued to issue derogations for these pesticides to the point that it was called "the derogations champion" by expert lobbyist Benjamin Sourice, during an interview with Franceinfo [4].

It is standard not only in France but at the European level to comprise derogations for the ban of plant protection products. However, as beekeepers have evidenced, there continues to be a problem surrounding such emergency authorisations. Even in 2018, member of BeeLife, UNAF (Union Nationale de l'Apiculture Française), denounced the high mortality rates in part due to continuing high levels of toxicity in the environment [5]. French beekeepers continue to be surprised that these unfavourable conditions for bees persist, even after years of EU-wide restrictions to neonicotinoids. It is clear that the provision for derogations of banned plant protection products is a part of the law, but, the continuity of derogations is worrying (and not only in France) [6].

The ANSES (Agence Nationale de Securité Sanitaire des Aliments) provides a framework to assess alternatives to neonicotinoids, including chemical and non-chemical ones. As a standard, when there are no available alternatives that meet the criteria based on efficacy, operationality, sustainability and practicality, derogations are issued for banned products [7]. But, as beekeepers continue to witness high rates of bee mortality, they continue to doubt the credibility of the process.

Although the remarkable ban of five neonicotinoids in France will come into force next month (September 2018), beekeepers still need to keep holding their breath. The procedure to obtain derogations are foreseen to last until 2020. In principle, France continues to show unprecedented progress towards less toxic environments for bees, but the devil is in the detail. And, in this case, it is evidenced through derogations. The UNAF even stated that "a complete ban in 4 years, means that potentially 1,2 million additional hives will be decimated", thanks to the form of derogations.

Although problematic, the other side of the coin overshadows the case of France. The United States regressed its work towards improving the protection of bees and biodiversity in general. The Obama administration established wildlife refuges, which also disregarded the use of neonicotinoid-coated seeds, as well as the use of GMOs. According to the administration at the time, management objectives could be met without the use of neither of these kinds of products [8]. However, the current government has dismissed these previous efforts and their underlying logic.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service stated that it ended the policy which prohibited the use of GMOs and certain pesticides, including neonicotinoids. The decision does not entail, however, the end of wildlife refuges. They have stated that the use of previously banned products will now be analysed on a case by case basis in 50 of the 560 refuge units.

Even though the refuges allow but a limited agricultural activity, the presence of highly-toxic pesticides will endanger bees and other pollinators that inhabit them, and who are a vital part of the ecosystems [9].

The contrast between the French and the US side can provide us with some insight towards the roads policy regarding the protection of pollinators might follow in other countries. Problems abound in both cases but, of course, at vastly different levels. On the one hand, France has set remarkable policies to improve conditions for pollinators, even going further than the European ban on all open air uses of three neonicotinoids approved in 2018. But, even with such legal advantages, continuous exceptions to the rule in the form of derogations still endanger bees in France. On the other hand, the US is regressing its efforts to protect not only pollinators but wildlife, particularly in such symbolic places as are 'refuges'. Dropping the efforts by the previous administration, indifferently of the motive, brings along incrementing risks. Without a generalised ban, the 'case by case' measurement seems to open up the possibility of an unchained and deformed problem of authorisations (which we may contrast with derogations in France).

By analysing both cases, there are several lessons to remark. Initially, the inclusion of policy is but the beginning of the efforts to safeguard the pollinators' environment from dangerous toxic products. As is no secret for any beekeeper, biologist or environmentalist, problems may persist for several years thanks to derogations and several loopholes in policy, which are prone to be exploited [10]. Furthermore, even policy is reversible, meaning that the watch by NGOs and citizens must be constant. The US has clearly shown the world that it is possible to step back from the commitment to protect wildlife, thus meriting continuous observation and inquiring by all stakeholders.

We have two examples of challenges and opportunities to safeguard the health of bees. Whether authorities develop legal protection of pollinators by banning dangerous products, though issues remain due to derogations; or they disregard any overall legal protection for pollinators, with only a case by case supervision for the authorisation of pesticides. Among both examples, beekeepers, scientists and environmentalists continue to point towards a third direction, tossing aside this two-sided coin with no value. Effective pollinator protection requires a legal framework without loopholes that allow the exploitation of derogations.






6. BeeLife has closely followed the case of Romania, where derogations have been granted for five years in a row. This problem has been exposed at the European Parliament, with the presence of Romania’s minister of Agriculture and Romanian MEP Daciana Sarbu:





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