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Pesticidemakers Challenge E.U. Neonicotinoid Ban in Court

BRUSSELS—Two agrochemical companies are fighting back against an E.U.-wide ban on three common neonicotinoid pesticides. Syngenta Crop Protection, which manufactures and sells one of the compounds in Europe, announced yesterday that it has brought a legal case earlier this month before the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg. Bayer CropScience, another producer, has done the same, a company spokesperson tells ScienceInsider.

In April, the European Commission decided to introduce a 2-year moratorium on the compounds—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—following reports by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) saying the substances pose an "acute risk" to honey bees essential to farming and natural ecosystems.

EFSA scientists based their conclusions on the data submitted for the substances' initial market approval, as well as later laboratory and field studies. They examined modes of contamination that had been overlooked when neonicotinoids were first approved for sale. But some scientists are unconvinced that the pesticides are a leading cause of pollinator deaths, and E.U. countries are divided over the issue.

“The Commission took the decision on the basis of a flawed process, an inaccurate and incomplete assessment by [EFSA] and without the full support of EU Member States,” Syngenta wrote in a statement published yesterday. “In suspending the product, [the European Commission] breached EU pesticide legislation and incorrectly applied the precautionary principle,” added John Atkin, Syngenta's chief operating officer.

Syngenta, based in Basel, Switzerland, insists that its products are not responsible for the decline of bee populations and that the problem lies instead in “disease, viruses and the loss of habitat and nutrition.” A Syngenta spokesperson says that the company not only wants the decision reversed, but has also submitted a claim for damages. "We are also seeking to defend our reputation which has been significantly damaged,” the spokesperson tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail.

There have been “no new scientific facts” supporting a product withdrawal after years of preliminary testing and widespread use, says the spokesperson for Bayer, which is based in Monheim, Germany. He says at stake is not just these compounds, but also the way in which the European Union makes its regulatory decisions. “It's very important for us to have guidance and clarity” regarding the European Union's regulatory framework, he says, because these regulations have a strong impact on the firm's investment decisions.

But several environmental groups have praised the European Commission's action. “The Commission was right to intervene,” Mark Breddy, a spokesman for Greenpeace EU, said in a statement. “The environmental risks and the threat to agricultural production posed by these pesticides far outweigh any benefits.” Some E.U. countries, including France and Italy, have already restricted the use of neonicotinoids, with no significant impacts on agricultural production, Greenpeace says.

It may take the court years to reach a decision. In the meantime, the legal cases have no suspensory effect, so the restrictions on the three chemicals will apply as planned from 1 December in all 28 E.U. member states.