After months of wavering, EU countries voted Friday for a permanent ban on some of the most widely used pesticides linked to harming bees.
The three so-called neonicotinoids have been partially banned since 2013. That’s been a sore spot for farmers of crops such as oilseed rape and sugar beet, who are highly dependent on the substances and say they don’t have any obvious replacements to get rid of pests.
The vote by an EU committee delivers a blow to two of Europe’s largest chemical companies, Bayer and Syngenta. A year ago, nearly half of EU countries were on the side of overturning the ban.
Last year, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed his support for bees, declaring “I’m the bees’ man,” adding that even though he is allergic to bees, “I want to protect them.”
Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam will be banned despite opposition from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary and Romania. These countries wanted more flexibility in EU rules to allow sugar beet farmers to continue planting seeds coated in the substances.
Experts from 16 countries — including France, Germany, the U.K., Spain and Italy — opted to follow scientific evidence from the European Food Safety Authority concluding that the pesticides “represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees.”
Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Finland abstained from the vote.
“The Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority,” Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said after the vote. “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”
Neonicotinoid manufacturers reacted with dismay to EU countries’ decision Friday.
Bayer, in an emailed statement, said that the ban is “a bad deal for the European agricultural sector and the environment, and one that will not improve the lot of bees or other pollinators.”
The company maintains that its products are safe so long as sprayers follow instructions on the label. It also said that a lack of alternatives to neonicotinoids would lead to farmers spraying more pesticides — which would boost carbon dioxide emissions and increase the risk of insecticide resistance among insects.
Syngenta also said the decision was “disappointing, but not unexpected.”
The Swiss firm questioned the methodology that Brussels and EU member countries used to make their decision, calling it “so conservative and so far removed from the reality of agriculture that its application would see most, if not all agricultural chemicals banned, including for example, those used in organic agriculture.”
“We stand by our products and our science,” Syngenta added.
Both companies have challenged an earlier ban at the European Court of Justice, and a ruling is expected next month.
The news also infuriated the bloc’s sugar farmers, who have traditionally relied on neonicotinoids to protect their beet crops. “The vote … is a severe blow for sugar beet growers and for the sustainability of the EU beet sugar sector,” said Elisabeth Lacoste, the director at CIBE, the international confederation of European beet growers.
Green groups praised the Commission’s decision and celebrated the outcome of the vote as a major victory for both public opinion and the environment.
“Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees,” said Antonia Staats, senior campaigner at Avaaz. “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.”
Friends of the Earth Europe welcomed the ban as a “tremendous victory for our bees and the wider environment” and called on the Commission to “focus on developing a strong pollinator initiative that boosts bee-friendly habitat and helps farmers cut pesticide-use.”
The regulation will now be adopted by the Commission in the coming weeks and enter into force by the end of the year.