Bees in a beehive. Neonicotinoid insecticides have for the first time been officially labelled an 'unacceptable' danger to bees feeding on flowering crops. Environmental campaigners say the conclusion, by Europe’s leading food safety authority, sounds the 'death knell' for the insect nerve agents. Photo: Alamy

By Damian Carrington
16 January 2013

(The Guardian) – The world's most widely used insecticide has for the first time been officially labelled an "unacceptable" danger to bees feeding on flowering crops. Environmental campaigners say the conclusion, by Europe's leading food safety authority, sounds the "death knell" for the insect nerve agent.

The chemical's manufacturer, Bayer, claimed the report, released on Wednesday, did not alter existing risk assessments and warned against "over-interpretation of the precautionary principle".

The report comes just months after the UK government dismissed a fast-growing body of evidence of harm to bees as insufficient to justify banning the chemicals.

Bees and other pollinators are critical to one-third of all food, but two major studies in March 2012, and others since, have implicated neonicotinoid pesticides in the decline in the insects, alongside habitat loss and disease. In April, the European commission demanded a re-examination of the risks posed by the chemicals, including Bayer's widely used imidacloprid and two others.

Scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), together with experts from across Europe, concluded on Wednesday that for imidacloprid "only uses on crops not attractive to honeybees were considered acceptable" because of exposure through nectar and pollen. Crops that attract honeybees include oil seed rape, corn, and sunflowers. EFSA was asked to consider the acute and chronic effects on bee larvae, bee behaviour and the colony as a whole, and the risks posed by sub-lethal doses. But it found a widespread lack of information in many areas and had stated previously that current "simplistic" regulations contained "major weaknesses".

"This is a major turning point in the battle to save our bees," said Friends of the Earth's Andrew Pendleton: "EFSA have sounded the death knell for one of the chemicals most frequently linked to bee decline and cast serious doubt over the safety of the whole neonicotinoid family. Ministers must wake up to the fact that these chemicals come with an enormous sting in the tail by immediately suspending the use of these pesticides."

Prof David Goulson, at the University of Stirling and who led one of the key 2012 studies, said: "It is very pleasing that EFSA now acknowledge there are significant environmental risks associated with these chemicals. It begs the question of what was going on when these chemicals were first approved. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was 50 years ago but we have not learned the lessons."

However, Bayer's Julian Little told the Guardian: "We do not believe the new EFSA reports alter the quality and validity of [existing] risk assessments and the underlying studies. [But] the company is ready to work with the European commission and member states to address the perceived data gaps. We believe it is very important that any political decision relating to registrations of neonicotinoid-containing products should be based on clear scientific evidence of adverse effects … and not on the basis of an over-interpretation of the precautionary principle." [more]

Insecticide 'unacceptable' danger to bees, report finds

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