European regulators worried three neonicotinoid pesticides threatened bees and other pollinators.

MARISA LUBECK, USGS

European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides

The European Union today expanded a controversial ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, based on the threat they pose to pollinators. The decision pleased environmental groups and was greeted with trepidation by farming associations, which fear economic harm.

In 2013, the European Union placed a moratorium on three kinds of neonicotinoids, forbidding their use in flowering crops that appeal to honey bees and other pollinating insects. The pesticides are commonly coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests; when the seed germinates, the pesticide is absorbed and spreads through the tissue. It eventually reaches pollen and nectar, which is how pollinators are exposed. Many studies have shown harm to pollinators in laboratory settings; large field trials have produced mixed results.

The European Commission last year proposed extending the ban of three neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—to all field crops, because of growing evidence that the pesticides can harm domesticated honey bees and also wild pollinators. A scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority, released this February, added momentum to the campaign.

After struggling to achieve a majority for several months, the representatives of member states passed the ban today in the commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed. Sixteen countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, voted in favor. Romania, Denmark, and three other countries opposed the ban, and 13 countries abstained. Neonicotinoids may still be used in permanent greenhouses.

Sugar beet growers say there are “no sustainable alternatives” to neonicotinoids and that their removal from market will hurt yields. In addition, seed treatments will be replaced with sprayed pesticides that are more harmful to pollinators, according to a statement from the International Confederation of European Beet Growers, in Brussels. And farmers who can’t afford to spray may go out of business, it warns.

Several pollinator experts cautioned that ban doesn’t include systemic pesticides related to neonicotinoids, and that more action is needed to protect pollinators from other threats, including introduced parasites, the loss of diverse flowers to feed on, and destruction of nesting habitat.