Brussels – The European Commission said Monday it would impose the world’s first continentwide ban on three pesticides that environmentalists say are killing the bees that pollinate Europe’s crops.
The decision was a blow to the two chemical companies — Bayer of Germany and Switzerland’s Syngenta — that turn profits from the products they say are not to blame for the sharp decline in the bee population.
A vote in Brussels saw 15 European governments backing a two-year suspension on use of the three pesticides but did not reach the required majority under EU rules, thus handing the final decision to the commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
“I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22 billion ($29 billion) annually to European agriculture, are protected,” EU health commissioner Tonio Borg said after the ballot.
The pesticides will from Dec. 1 be banned from use on some crops and during seasons crucial for the survival of bees.
The insecticides — imidacloprid and clothianidin produced by Bayer, and thiamethoxam by Syngenta — are used to treat seeds, and are applied to the soil or sprayed on bee-attractive plants and cereals.
Bees account for 80 percent of plant pollination by insects, which is vital to global food production. Without them, many crops would be unable to bear fruit or would have to be pollinated by hand.
“Today’s vote makes it crystal clear that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban,” said Marco Contiero of the Greenpeace environmental activist group.
Countries opposed to the ban, including Britain and Hungary, failed to muster enough support to block the commission’s proposed moratorium.
Germany, which in a previous vote had abstained and was under heavy pressure from pharmaceutical firms and farmers to fight the proposal, also voted in favor.
Both Bayer and Sygenta, the top player in the global agrichemical market, reject as flawed the findings of studies saying their products are to blame for falling bee numbers.
Bayer CropScience’s Richard Breum said in a statement that it remained convinced the insecticides were “safe for bees if the products are applied according to instructions” and warned that the EU ban would be “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.”
Syngenta Chief Operating Officer John Atkin said the proposed ban “is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees.
“Instead of banning these products, the commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition.”
Copa Cogeca, which represents European farmers and European agriculture cooperatives, last week said even a temporary ban would cause €2.8 billion in losses to farmers and a further €2 billion loss to the EU economy due to a fall in seed production and rising feed costs because of a need to increase imports.
In the countdown to Monday’s decision, battle lines sharpened between environmentalists and farmers and pharmaceutical firms opposed to the ban on pesticides from the so-called neonicotonoid family.
Internet-based global campaigner Avaaz, which has gathered 2.5 million signatures to save the insect, floated a giant plastic honey bee over EU headquarters to hammer home its message.
The European Commission demanded their ban for use on four major crops — maize, rape seed, sunflowers and cotton — after the European Food Safety Authority said they posed “disturbing” risks to bees and other pollinating insects vital for human food production.
Fifteen nations voted in favor of the ban: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
Eight nations voted against the ban: Austria, Britain, Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia.
Four nations abstained: Ireland, Greece, Lithuania and Finland.