Highly likely pesticide ban in EU could sting agrochemical companies

Highly likely pesticide ban in EU could sting agrochemical companies

By Gopi Kuppuraj

EU’s Food Safety Authority (EFSA) evaluations support that most applications of neonicotinoid insecticides represent a significant threat to wild bees and honeybees. It is highly possible that these substances will be banned from all fields across the EU when member nations vote on this issue in late March.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. They act on an insect’s nervous system, specifically on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). By blocking the nAChR pathway, neonicotinoids prevent acetylcholine from transmitting nerve impulses. An important feature of this mechanism is the almost irreversible binding of the compounds to nAChRs in insects resulting in insects’ paralysis leading to death.

The neonicotinoid market:

Neonicotinoids are perhaps the most widely used insecticides due to their efficacy against insects and lasting residual activity. According to YaleEnvironment360in the U.S., neonicotinoids are currently used on about 95% of corn and canola crops; the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets. They are also used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops, including berries, cherries, peaches, oranges, apples, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes. Neonicotinoids are also applied to seed coatings, cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes. These compounds represent 25% of the global insecticide market.

According to Jeschke et al, as of 2011, seven neonicotinoids were on the market (see Table).

Molecule Manufacturer Brand Names Revenue (US$ mil)*
Imidacloprid Bayer Crop Science Confidor, Admire, Gaucho, Advocate 1091
Thiamethoxam Syngenta Actara, Platinum, Cruiser 627
Clothianidin Bayer Crop Science/Sumitomo Chemical Poncho, Dantosu, Dantop, Belay 439
Acetamiprid Nippon Soda Mospilan, Assail, ChipcoTrista 276
Thiacloprid Bayer Crop Science Calypso 112
Dinotefuran Mitsui Chemicals Starkle, Safari, Venom 79
Nitenpyram Sumitomo Chemical Capstar, Guardian 8

*Data from 2009

Be(e) concerned:

Neonicotinoids do not differentiate between target insects (e.g. corn rootworms, flea beetles) and non-target insects (e.g. honey bees, wild bees). As such, non-target organisms are exposed to neonicotinoids’ neurotoxicity.

The three most commonly identified neonicotinoids are:

  1. Clothianidin
  2. Imidacloprid
  3. Thiamethoxam

In addition, these compounds frequently contaminate pollen and nectar of wildflowers growing in the vicinity of treated crops, increasing the extent of bee exposure to neonicotinoids. Screening the nectar and pollen stores within honeybee or bumblebee nests shows that neonicotinoids are often present. Typical concentrations of neonicotinoids in honey and pollen collected by bees range from  1–10 ng/g.

These reports indicate the strong evidence that neonicotinoids harm individual bees. However, a landmark study in the last year showed neonicotinoids’ damage to bee colonies. The article, published in Science, collected field data to measure the threat of neonicotinoid-applied crops on three bee species across three European countries: Hungary, Germany and the United Kingdom. The results showed a 24% decline in the survival of colonies of bees exposed to these insecticides.

Ban on bee-bothering pesticides:

To tackle the decrease of Europe’s bee colonies, EFSA imposed restrictions on the use of three pesticides belonging to the neonicotinoid family: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The restrictions came to effect on December 1, 2013. However, these insecticides are currently banned only on flowering crops, especially oilseed rape, as they are seen as most attractive to bees.

In February 2018, EFSA updated its assessment, which comprised wild bees – bumblebees and solitary bees – and honeybees. The authority carried out extensive data collection and reported that neonicotinoids are “high risk to bees”. This has led to a call for a complete ban on the bee-harming pesticides in the EU member states.  An approved ban will likely to come into effect in 2020 as a part of EU’s post-2020 farming policy, since some crops lack pesticide alternatives.

Regulations in the United States:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a preliminary assessment classifies clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran as toxic to bees. In March 2012, the Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network and Beyond Pesticides filed a petition with the EPA asking the agency to ban the use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam in the U.S. However, the agency has stated that it will not complete its registration appraisal for clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as other neonicotinoids, until April 21, 2018.

Alternatives to neonicotinoids:

Given their widespread use and market worth, it is difficult to ascertain how a total ban on these insecticides would impact economy – the agricultural industry, in particular. However, a number of alternatives – farming techniques and non-chemical pesticides – are being developed or proposed.

  • Friends of Earth, a non-profit organization based in the UK reports that crop rotation decreases pesticide usage by 6-25%.
  • Researchers have discovered that plants grown from seeds immersed in jasmonic acid – a natural plant chemical – are substantially more immune to pests. Such ‘biopesticides’ should cut synthetic pesticide use, and could be a financially advantageous choice for farmers.
  • Pesticide Action Network Europe has come up with a list of ‘reasonably safe’ chemicals that can be substituted for neonicotinoids use.

Both farmers and agrochemical companies will be affected by this pesticide ban, if the EU votes on going through with the ban. Other countries are expected to follow along on this ban. Safer and more sustainable alternatives do exist. Our team of advanced degree and highly skilled scholars can help your company innovate the next ‘non-toxic’, bee-friendly pesticide. Contact us today!

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