The EU is to ban temporarily three widely used pesticides blamed for a sharp fall in bee numbers, in what is believed to be the first continent-wide moratorium on such chemicals.
The move comes after 15 of the bloc’s 27 member states backed restrictions on three types of the neonicotinoid insecticides that manufacturers insist are safe but environmental campaigners say are devastating populations of the insects around the world.
The ban will take effect on December 1 for two years, unless any new scientific evidence emerges.
Leading manufacturers of the pesticides criticised what Switzerland-based Syngenta said was a decision based on “poor science”. Germany’s Bayer CropScience said the move would reduce food quality and make European agriculture less competitive.
Farmers in the UK, one of eight member states to oppose the ban on Monday, said the move was likely to have a “catastrophic” impact on food production. It would probably also have “unintended consequences for the environment, without delivering any measurable benefits for bee health”, said the UK’s National Farmers Union.
Because the vote did not reach a qualified majority, it is formally up to the European Commission to act.
Tonio Borg, health and consumer commissioner, said a final decision would be published in coming weeks but added: “I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22bn annually to European agriculture, are protected.”
A commission spokesman later acknowledged there were “gaps in the science”, but there were also significant problems with the EU’s bee populations and neonicotinoids had been identified as one factor behind this.
“We don’t know everything but we feel the science is sufficiently clear that we should be doing something,” he said.
Environmentalists were jubilant about what Friends of the Earth said was “a significant victory for bees and common sense”.
A number of scientists also applauded the move. “This is a victory for the precautionary principle, which is supposed to underlie environmental regulation,” said Dr Lynn Dicks, a research associate at the University of Cambridge.
But others were more wary. “We are concerned that the decision has been made through political lobbying, rather than a comprehensive and sound scientific risk-benefit assessment,” said Professor Lin Field, head of biological chemistry and crop protection at Rothamsted Research., the agricultural research station.
Prof Field added: “There are many other factors known to affect bee colonies – the varroa mite, the bee viruses spread by the mites, pesticides that beekeepers use to kill the mites, climate effects and flower and nectar availability – all of which need to be taken into consideration. Thinking we can solved the bee problem by a ban on neonicotinoids may mean we overlook these other important factors.”
Get alerts on Europe when a new story is published