Wildlife campaigners hail ban on 'bee-harming' pesticides

A near-total ban on pesticides linked to declines in bees is set to come into force across Europe by the end of the year, in a move hailed as a "beacon of hope" for the insects.

European Union member states have decided on a ban on the outdoor use of "neonicotinoid" pesticides after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) confirmed in February the risk they posed to bees.

The move has been welcomed by environmental campaigners, who have warned that the pesticides are contributing to falling populations of bees, but farmers said the Government must work with them to mitigate the impacts of the ban.

Use of three pesticides was already restricted in the European Union on crops such as oilseed rape, because of concerns that they have "sub-lethal" effects such as harming the bees' ability to forage and form colonies.

But they could still be used on sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

Member states have now endorsed proposals by the European Commission to completely ban the outdoor use of the three active substances, meaning they can only be used in greenhouses.

European Commission officials hope the ban will come into force by the end of the year.

After countries including the UK voted for the ban, a spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) welcomed the further restrictions, as the weight of evidence showed the risk the chemicals could pose to the environment.

"We recognise the impact a ban will have on farmers and will continue to work with them to explore alternative approaches as we design a new agricultural policy outside the European Union," he added.

Antonia Staats, senior campaigner at Avaaz, which led a petition backed by five million signatures to ban the chemicals, said: "Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees.

"Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can't live with these chemicals and we can't live without bees."

Emi Murphy, bee campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "This a major victory for science, common sense and our under-threat bees."

She called on Environment Secretary Michael Gove to give farmers the support they need to grow food without bee-harming pesticides.

But Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union, said: "This decision doesn't change the fact that farmers will continue to face challenges to maintain sustainable and productive cropping systems, and the pest problems that neonicotinoids helped farmers tackle have not gone away."

He warned that, without the pesticides, many crops grown in the UK would become less viable and could lead to increased imports of food.

"There is a real risk that these restrictions will do nothing measurable to improve bee health, while compromising the effectiveness of crop protection."

He added that farmers were "acutely aware" that bees played a crucial role in food production, and had planted 10,000 football pitches of flower habitat across the UK to support the insects.

Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said there was abundant evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, and growing evidence they were involved in declines of butterflies, aquatic insects and insect-eating birds.

But he warned that if neonicotinoids were just replaced with similar compounds, "we will simply be going round in circles".

"What is needed is a move towards truly sustainable farming methods that minimise pesticide use, encourage natural enemies of crop pests, and support biodiversity and healthy soils," he said.

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